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As vital as Ronaldo: How McKennie went from bargain-bin buy to one of Juventus' MVPs

14:00 GMT 04/03/2021
Weston McKennie Cristiano Ronaldo Andrea Pirlo Juventus GFX
The American's loan move to Turin has been made permanent for €18.5m, underlining just how quickly he has become a key part of Andrea Pirlo's plans

When Juventus made the decision to sign Weston McKennie on a loan deal last summer, they did so because of his obvious potential.

The U.S. men's national team midfielder wasn't quite one of the most heralded youngsters in the world but, after several years in Schalke's first team, he was close enough.

Juve felt he was one for the future – but capable of contributing to the present. McKennie, though, has quickly become more important than even Juventus could have imagined.

As a result, the Italian champions have now announced that they will be  exercising their right to make McKennie's move to Turin permanent for an initial €18.5 million (£16m/$22m).

It represents an excellent bit of business by the Bianconeri, given the 22-year-old would undoubtedly command double that fee on the open market. Juve have locked down a player perfectly placed to help them make the move from one era of success to another.

Of course, when he joined, McKennie was far from a sure thing. He'd thrived at Schalke, who, at the time, were only beginning what has now become a historic tailspin, and had been linked with mid-table teams in England and Germany before Juventus suddenly entered the fray.

It was a shrewd move. Schalke were more than willing to do a deal having been hit harder than most by the economic crisis caused by Covid-19, while Juve needed a young, low-cost signing capable of reinvigorating an ageing and ineffective midfield. 

The question was whether McKennie was really the answer to their problems. Playing regular Bundesliga football at such a young age was undoubtedly impressive but Juventus are a very different animal to Schalke. The Bianconeri are led by Cristiano Ronaldo, and teams led by Cristiano Ronaldo don't tolerate players that need time to adjust.

But, while Ronaldo obviously remains Juve's most important player, one could make the argument that McKennie is now also vital to the team's chances of success this season.

McKennie has started 14 games in Serie A, with Juve winning 11 and losing just one. On the flip side, in the 10 games that McKennie has not started, Andrea Pirlo's side have dropped points in seven of them, which may just make the difference as they chase Inter and AC Milan at the top of the Serie A standings.

He's scored important goals, against Torino, Barcelona and Milan, and he's fit seamlessly into Pirlo's tactical plans, providing a steadying force in midfield for a rookie coach still finding his way at the top level.

Essentially, when healthy, he makes Juventus a better team, meaning what once looked like a bargain-bin loan has quickly turned into something more. McKennie isn't just filling a hole; he's completing an entire puzzle.

“Weston McKennie is getting better even though he has been battling with minor injuries this year," Pirlo recently told reporters. "I keep talking with the medical staff and even though he should rest more, we need him on the field as much as possible."

Indeed, it was obvious just a few weeks after his move to Turin that Juve would take up their option to sign McKennie on a permanent basis, as he offers something different to fellow midfielders Arthur, Aaron Ramsey, Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur.

Whether deployed centrally or out wide, he nearly always delivers what Pirlo asks of him. And now that he's officially found a new home, McKennie can now look towards a more certain future with Juventus, where he has the potential to truly become a star.

“McKennie is young and has so much room for improvement," Pirlo said at a press conference in January. "We were the quickest one to sign him and we are happy he is part of the squad.

“He is a humble guy who always wants to improve, especially on a technical level. He needs to improve when he receives the ball, but he knows this is only a starting point.”

McKennie, though, is now set to be a key part of a major overhaul of the Juve squad that has, in part, already begun.

Paulo Dybala's future remains up in the air, while stalwarts like Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Gianluigi Buffon, players that defined an era for Juventus, are on their way out. 

Even the mighty Ronaldo only has so many years left, and it remains to be seen if those years are spent at Juve.

Juve, then, are already thinking about the future, one built around the likes of McKennie, Matthijs de Ligt, Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski.

What happens over the next few years is anyone's guess. Transition is never easy and things change quickly, especially at a club the size of Juventus.

But the Bianconeri are now committed to McKennie, and McKennie to Juventus.

What was once a bargain move based on potential has turned into a permanent agreement between a player and a club that can both see brighter days ahead.