Weston McKennie started in the defensive midfield position in Schalke’s loss to Borussia Dortmund. The USMNT midfielder struggled. He needs a defined role.
The versatility of a young player is a major positive skill set. It shows positional intelligence, high tactical understanding, and terrific spatial awareness, recognising the different responsibilities that come with the different roles.
It also means that they are given game time in a variety of positions. Players have to play to develop. It has been true for many years, but if they are only useful in one position, the opportunities that come their way are reduced in comparison to someone who can play at several different positions.
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However, while this versatility can be invaluable, it can also be the undermining factor when young prospects attempt to forge a role in the senior team. It is the age-old problem: do you want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none?
This the position that Weston McKennie currently finds himself in. The 21-year-old in on course to make the most Bundesliga appearances of his career. Inspired under David Wagner, he has enjoyed an encouraging campaign playing throughout the central midfield. He has even played at centre-back this season, such is his versatility.
As the Bundesliga returned to action this weekend, McKennie was immediately thrust into the fire. Against title-chasing Borussia Dortmund, Wagner started him in a defensive midfield position in a back-three-based shape. It did not work. Schalke were soundly beaten in a 4-0 defeat.
McKennie looked lost. Haring after the ball without tactical understanding, he was routinely played around. He tried to press and was easily outmanoeuvred. He sat back in a more conservative manner and Dortmund simply controlled the match and turned up the screw. He failed to track runners, was inconsistent in possession, and was uncomfortable throughout, repeatedly having to curtail the more offensive side of his game, which is an innate element of his play.
Following his performance, MLS analyst for The Sports Network Steven Caldwell expressed his concerns:
“McKennie has really struggled today at the base of midfield. Tactically undisciplined in that role. Hazard and Brandt have caused him all sorts of problems playing off his shoulder. Very talented player for sure, however hard to know what his best position is.”
It is this last point that is the most poignant. McKennie has played in an attacking midfield position, as a roaming box-to-box midfielder, which is likely his best-suited role given his athleticism and range of movement, and as a defensive midfielder. He is capable in each of these, but he is a master at none. And as he looks to make hay as a regular starter in a top-five European league, that inconsistency, the relentless rotation and unsettled rhythm of jumbled starts does not help.
The USMNT midfielder, then, needs to nail down a position, to understand it innately, and then to eventually master it. Because, at the moment, he is in danger of slipping through the cracks.