Schalke head coach David Wagner believes USA international Weston McKennie has what it takes to become one of the best midfielders in the Bundesliga, despite just turning 21.
McKennie has started both of the Royal Blues' league outings this season, most recently in the 3-0 defeat at home to Bayern Munich on Saturday. And while that result left Schalke with just one point on the board from their opening two fixtures, Wagner has been impressed by McKennie's displays.
"He’s an outstanding talent," the 47-year-old told Fox Soccer after the Bayern game. "In the No.6 or No.8 position he has the mentality, a real working mentality that you need. And he’s brave on the ball as well."
There is no denying that. McKennie covered 7.68 miles (12.36 kilometres) during the match, a distance bettered only by Bayern's Joshua Kimmich (7.95 miles / 12.80 kilometres), while the 21-year-old has completed 87.5 per cent of his passes and won 61.5 per cent of all aerial duels this term.
"He’s also very good in the air and he’s young, so there is a lot more to come but we’re very happy to have him in our team," Wagner continued.
"We’ll support him as well as we can to make him into the player he can be, and this is for sure one of the top players at Schalke, and I think one of the top players in the Bundesliga in this position. We’ll try everything to help support him to get to this stage.
To that end, McKennie himself is delighted to be playing regularly in his preferred position, having been deployed as a full-back, centre-back, attacking midfielder and striker at various times over the past two seasons.
“This year we [McKennie and Wagner] definitely see eye-to-eye in the clear role that I have in the team," the Texas native told Fox.
"Playing as a No.6 or No. 8 in the midfield, preferably. I think this year is not like last year where I was a utility player, every position that wasn’t filled. This year is better for me in understanding where I am and what my role is."
That same clarity is evident in Wagner's desire to implement a more possession-based playing style in the team in a bid to improve upon last season's 14th-placed finish.
Watch: McKennie confident Schalke will bounce back
“The coach is definitely trying to instill confidence in all of us to play," McKennie said. "Last season we tried to play a lot of long balls over the top, running and working hard.
"This year we’ve really changed the game up and are trying to play. Combine with each other, having the confidence to get the ball. Asking for the ball, supporting each other. We work on it in training and it’s paying off. It definitely makes it more fun to play."
Now McKennie and Co. just need to translate that sense of enjoyment into results, starting with Saturday's clash at home to Hertha Berlin.