Managing the Midfield: McGinn and Luiz’s potential midfield partner

Since Villa confirmed their place in the Premier League for the 2020/21 season, the transfer rumour mill has been in full flow – as expected. With fans pining for the likes of Milot Rashica and Saïd Benrahma – who have been linked to Villa on the daily – plus a reported £100m transfer budget, the question becomes whether Villa are better off splashing the cash on only one winger and bringing in another quality central midfielder?

Whilst it would be advised by most that Dean Smith should sign at least two wingers, a player of the quality of Saïd Benrahma – who may well already be Premier League bound with Brentford – could genuinely command a fee anywhere in the region of £35m-£60m.

I believe that a decision of this magnitude, regarding the potential arrival of a £60m winger, will impact the position we see Jack Grealish occupy next season. If we sign multiple wingers, there’s a chance we’ll see Jack return to the centre of midfield, but if we see a big money transfer for a single Benrahma type winger, it looks likely that we will see Grealish line-up on the opposite flank, which would then suggest Villa are in the market for a central midfielder.

Villa will have to be smart with their spending if this is the case. I’m by no means suggesting we nickel and dime it in wide positions, as the 19/20 season proved, it pays to have quality in these positions, but we shouldn’t be turning our nose up at James McCarthy for as little as £5m. McCarthy is a player with 256 Premier League appearances and would offer much needed experience for a meer 5% of the reported transfer budget. Surely he’d offer more than the likes of Danny Drinkwater and Henri Lansbury?

The point of this article though, is not to argue that McCarthy would complete the midfield trio and be on the starting XI every single game. More that if we’re going to sign a ‘superstar’ like Benrahma, signings like McCarthy make sense. Of course, there’s still room for another transfer in the region of £20m-£30m.

In my mind, the player who would not only take Aston Villa to the next level – whilst simultaneously improving an already promising midfield – is Weston McKennie.

In case you weren’t aware, McKennie is a 21-year-old American central midfielder currently playing for FC Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga. McKennie has played and scored in the UEFA Champions League last season and has amassed 75 appearances for The Miners since first breaking into the first team in 2017.

McKennie holds all of the attributes players need to succeed in the Premier League, his willingness to run both in and out of possession, combined with his ability to pick out a pass and the capacity to win the ball back all point towards the Texan born midfielder being destined for greatness. Don’t just take my word for it, though.

Italian teammate Daniel Caligiuri only has positive things to say about his team mate and his role in the Schalke team:

 “I like his mentality, he always gives his all, whether it’s in training or in a game.

“Not everyone has his talent at 20, he’s a fighter, I think we’re on the right path, and I know that Weston is only going to become a more important player for us.” 

Weston McKennie and Daniel Caligiuri celebrating for Schalke (Via DFL Deutsche Fussball Liga)

The American is the real deal; an effective operator both in and out of possession, winning 50.9% of his 560 duels in the 2019/20 season. That’s only just worse than John McGinn’s stats this season, with the Scot winning 51.9% of 368 duels he engaged in, but he betters Douglas Luiz who only won 47.57% of his 309 duels. The fact that McKennie engaged in approximately 200 more duels than both Douglas and McGinn and still boasts a respectable win ratio, is a facet that can undoubtedly be translated into the English game.

Operating mainly as a box to box midfielder, the importance of his percentage of duels won cannot be understated, neither can the midfielder’s passing ability.

Often being the springboard of the counter-attack, or receiving the ball in the box, it’s vital that McKennie can pick out a pass. From 942 attempted passes from open play, McKennie boasts an impressive 85% pass accuracy. Again this is an improvement on Luiz, only marginally though, as 83% of the Brazilian’s 1208 passes were accurate with 82% of McGinn’s 715 passes were successful. With such an impressive passing record, it’s a no brainer that the American would fit into Dean Smith’s footballing philosophy.

The most common misconception about football across the continent is that the game isn’t played at the same pace as the Premier League, which on occasion is true. However, the counter-attacking nature of the Bundesliga lends itself to attracting pacey players who cover plenty of ground. Again, this attribute is absolutely key to the way Smith sets up his Villa side.

Throughout the course of last season, McKennie covered 272.9km, which ranked him at 79th in the distance covered charts, making 559 sprints also, which was the 64th highest amount in the league. Many of McKennie’s runs are forward thinking and see the American arriving in the box, which is something Villa have been fairly criticised for on plenty of occasions throughout the course of last season.

All of these attributes lend themselves to McKennie being the perfect piece to the midfield puzzle and would complement a perfect midfield pivot with Douglas Luiz.  As we saw in the early stages of last season, Villa benefitted by having McGinn closer to Wesley – with his lung-busting runs into the box often resulting in goals or decent opportunities. McKennie has proven he can do the job both offensively and defensively and operating a double pivot with Luiz would also allow the Brazilian to venture forward every once in a while.

It would be careless of me to portray my own thoughts as those of the club’s, as we are currently aware there is no (public) interest from Aston Villa in Weston McKennie; however, Southampton, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are all reportedly interested in the midfielder and he will be available for a fee of around £18m if the tabloids are to be believed.

If the reported fee is anywhere near true, it’s an absolute bargain in the current market. McKennie is capped for his country and is a part of what is deemed a “golden generation” of American players for the USMNT – giving the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’, a much better meaning.

For the meantime I, like many others, will enjoy observing how Villa conduct their business. From the incomings we will be able to obtain an insight on how Villa aim to set up next season. A transfer window in which we could potentially reunite Tammy Abraham with B6, Saïd Benrahma with Dean Smith and add experience in the form of McCarthy, would be considered a success. But I can’t help but feel that Villa will have missed a trick if they don’t at least consider Captain America himself, someone who could Make Aston Great Again.

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