Written by Peter Pankovski - @23Pankovski
Not to be mistaken with the 35th president of the United States, John Kennedy Batista de Souza or just John Kennedy has been on the scene in Brazil for some time now. However, these have largely been for issues off the field than on it. He’s another talent that has come through the academy of one of the most emblematic teams in Brazil - Fluminense.
Despite this, his talent has been evident for years now and as he’s shining and leading (at the time of writing) Flu to potentially a Libertadores final alongside some top tier names such as Andre and German Cano it begs the question whether he’s finally arrived on the scene and ready to fulfill his undoubted potential?
Born in Itauna, Minas Gerais on the 18th of May, 2002 his parents relocated to Rio as he was a child and he started off his youth career at local club Serrano before eventually being spotted by Flu and enrolling into their academy in 2016. From there it was a pretty straightforward rise.
A regular in every single age category the youngster brought goals with him and was touted as the eventual replacement for then starting striker Fred. Most notably he loved playing against bitter rivals Flamengo, netting 13 times in 14 appearances against them at youth level.
The inevitable happened and in 2021 he was integrated into the first team squad with people expecting the then 19-year old to get enough chances under the tutelage of the veteran in order to eventually displace him.
However, this is where, unfortunately, problems started to pop up. At youth level, reports of his off-field problems never really surfaced but once the youngster got into the “big boys” there was no escaping them. As he was shining at the Copinha and featuring in the Carioca Regional he unfortunately was diagnosed with flu-like symptoms.
Largely expected, it turned out to be COVID and sadly the youngster developed complications from the disease that set him back for three months. He lost his space within the side and needed to “recover”it by dropping down a level back to the youth sides.
He made his gradual return in July but was only handed starts and more meaningful minutes in October as the season drew to a close and, to be honest, he didn’t disappoint with good performances and 2 goals versus - you guessed - arch rivals Flamengo.
During that time, however, he was pictured in a Live Video partying, which at the time was strictly prohibited, alongside fellow teammate Higor from the U23s but also an exotic dancer and another person holding a suspicious looking cigarette.
This didn’t go down well with Tricolor’s higherups but it was only the beginning. Reports of him arriving late to training were also a massive red flag. 2022 rolled in and after recovering from the aforementioned issue he went on holiday and whilst playing football with his friends he broke his foot.
Undoubtedly an unlucky scenario but end of the day a professional player is well aware of the risks that can occur in such endevours. He underwent surgery on his broken metatarsal which sidelined him for five months and during that period it was reported that the youngster opted against showing up to physiotherapy sessions.
Just as he was edging closer to a return he once again made headlines - albeit not directly. On the 8th of May two people were arrested in Rio without a drivers license and with 10 kilograms of marijuana in their vehicle. Guess who the vehicle belonged to? Yes, that’s right - John Kennedy. He was subsequently fined for “lending the vehicle” to the two people but it was issue after issue and Fluminense seemed close to calling it quits.
This is where newly-appointed manager Fernando Diniz stepped in. Instead of reprimanding the youngster for his consistent off-field problems he put his arms around him aiming to help him stating admirably that “History knows a lot of John Kennedy’s.” and that “People only look at the player and not the person and his life story which is a flaw of us all.”
It served some purpose initially but only until early-September when, for disciplinary reasons he was removed from training with the Senior squad and the side actively starting looking into moving him.
It was ultimately the “stroke that broke the camel’s back” as at the start of the 2023 season he was almost sold to Chicago Fire in the MLS in order to “reset” himself in different surroundings. However, not everybody in the Flu board wanted to dismiss the talented youngster so easily instead opting to loan him out to Sao Paulo side Ferroviaria where he started off red-hot.
It seems like that move brought the youngster back on the footballing scene. He netted 6 goals in 11 appearances despite the side getting relegated to the A2 (second division of the Paulista Regional Championship) and was brought back into the Fluminense Senior side immediately as his loan deal ran out.
Diniz embraced the youngster who seemed like a completely new man and he’s yet to be in the news for anything other than his performances on the football pitch scoring seven goals and assisting three in 25 appearances most of which have been off the bench.
It’s quite the comeback story and although there is still the chance that something may occur, it seems the striker is finally aware of the trajectory his ability can lead him to.
Still only 21, he has all the time in the world to embrace the challenge and realise his fullest potential and maybe becoming even more than Fred’s heir or Cano’s for that matter but in order to do so he needs to keep his head down and keep working as hard as he has been this year because the Sky’s the limit.
But what type of profile is he? What are the areas he excels at and does he have other deficiencies excluding the aforementioned off-field antics? Let’s move on to his player breakdown!
Standing at 181 cm, John Kennedy is a striker that likes to use his right foot. He’s mobile and loves to get on the ball as much as possible, dropping deep and trying to be involved in the general play rather than just sit back off the shoulder and try and pounce on chances.
His fantastic close control and dribbling ability actually sees him even churn in on the wings, largely off the left as he prefers to cut inside rather than just take players on 1v1 hugging the touchline.
In this heatmap (above) which is a pretty accurate representation of the zones the player ideally occupies. For the sake of argument this is from his stint at Ferroviaria where he started basically everywhere and regularly.
I’ve used this mostly because it paints a better picture rather than a heatmap of his time this year at Flu where he largely comes off the bench and occupies various different roles such as playing alongside and just off Cano, in his place or on the left making things a tad more difficult. Below, we can also see a pie-chart albeit of the limited amounts of minutes he’s made in the Brasileirao with Flu. Courtesy of McLachbot and @ChicagoDmitry on Twitter.
Kicking things off with what is undoubtedly one of John’s biggest strengths - his finishing. I can’t stress this enough that he is an absolutely phenomenal finisher. He combines his shots with a great level of shot power and technique.
Being able to use both his feet also allows him to make better decisions when it comes to angle and placement of the ball and with that in mind he pretty much has every finish one could possibly have.
Rounding the keeper, chip shots, long shots, curlers - you name it, he’s likely to be able to do it if given the opportunity. It does also show up on the stat sheet as in the games he’s played so far in his senior career he’s managed 39 goals - with his xG sitting at 36.05 meaning he’s not someone who’s vastly over-performed his expected goal ratio. His shots on target also sit at an impressive 45.4% .
His second most impressive quality along with his close control. Now, I’m quite far away from stating John Kennedy is the reincarnation of Garincha or Ronaldinho but he carries with him the ability to be a fantastic 1v1 threat. Once again it’s worth noting that he’s capable of playing with boot feet and as such he is capable of keeping the ball close to him.
He beats a man well and is fast enough to create separation from him in order to take advantage of the ground now created. It’s why even when he plays centrally he likes to drop deep and be involved rather than just try and get on the end of chances.
It’s surprising for someone who’s a bit on the taller side to possess such quick feet coupled with the movement to be someone so tricky and hard to handle. He’s managed to be successful in 45 % of his dribbles.
And once again, this is someone who is tasked with occupying central zones meaning his number being below 50 isn’t a poor interpretation of what he can do when having to take people on and beat them off the dribble.
I think this is where John Kennedy largely divides opinion on just how good he is/can be. In terms of short passes and keeping things tidy and the flow of play going, he’s really good.
However, he is a bit of an egoist at times opting against better passing options. It could be spun into a positive narrative showing his confidence to either score or beat his man but it can be put in a bit of a negative light that he doesn’t really have the vision or even desire to look for the pass.
Which actually lends perfectly into the next section of passing which is why I said he divides opinion. When given the opportunity to play through balls and showcase said vision he evidently struggles with it.
Again, it largely comes down to what you want from him as a player role and given that he’s a fantastic finisher you don’t need to burden him additionally with creativity BUT (and it’s quite a big one) his style of play and desire to be involved on the ball as much as possible means that it’s a quality you want from a player capable of taking people on a consistent basis in the way he does.
Given his stature I’m not surprised just how impressive his leap is. When it comes to attacking headers and getting on the end of them he can finish fantastically well. Of the 13 goals scored this year three of those have been with his head and they are very impressive finishes that combine leap along with power and accuracy.
It’s the way in which he places his body and most notably his feet that give him the chances to get on the end of headers in a much more favourable way. That being said and it will tie on with the next point is that in the defensive phase he’s reluctant to enter into aerial battles.
As such he rarely ever produces anything of note and it’s pretty evident. He’s won only 26.4 % of his defensive aerial duels which is a testament to exactly that.
Defensive work rate and Pressing
Carrying on with what was said above as it ties a bit to this segment and why I feel John is yet to become a ready made starter for Diniz despite being as impressive - his defensive work rate. Or lack there of.
Now, obviously, under Diniz he does need to press as it’s a very key attribute to have in order to thrive under him and he has been improving on the metric gradually but he’s still not entirely up there and it shows.
Unfortunately, I do not have access to a better representation via Opta or Squawka but in terms of pure defensive actions and possession won stats he ranks at an average off…0.3. Again, it’s not an exact knock on him as it’s not the role you need him from him but for Diniz “defence starts upfront” and as such the expectation is to be much more effective when it comes to that area of his game.
It has been mentioned before but the youngster is able with both feet. He’s not an Ousmane Dembele level of weak foot play but he is someone confidently capable of using his weak foot for all that is required of him, most notably his finishing.
It allows him to try and shoot off the dribble with his left or just dribble past a player/pass with his weak foot and as such it makes him a dangerous weapon to face. Again, hard to gauge with clear cut stats but it is worth noting that off the 6 goals in the Paulista with Ferroviaria - two are with his left, three with his right foot and one with his head.
Of the four in the Brasileirao with Flu it once again split to one with his left, one with his head and two with the right.
In a way, John Kennedy resembles a bit of the modern day forward/ number 9. He doesn’t exactly crash the small penalty box with runs and looks to just get on the end of the shots.
He likes to come into play, be involved, be part of the overall game and take players on whilst linking up play and being more of a half-spaces type forward rather than just a pure number 9.
Gabriel Jesus, Randal Kolo Muani or Alexander Isak are names that resemble that type of striker. If you want to go a bit deeper into history names like Samuel Eto’o and David Villa can be highlighted given their tenacity, pure striker finishing instinct and movement coupled with the ability to occupy the left-hand area and even play off the shoulder of an attacker.
Granted, none of these names have the dribbling that John Kennedy has, it’s hard to stamp down a clear cut name to compare him to.
For the sake of argument I’d go with Eto’o though again, dribbling falls to Kennedy whereas movement off the ball and pressing in a more defensive manner is on the Cameroonian’ side.
John Kennedy is a ridiculously talented player. This article doesn’t do him justice in terms of raw ability and talent at hand. His issue and what has delayed his rise to stardom in Brazil and beyond has been the numerous off-field issues that have derailed a young wonderkid.
Diniz is very right in saying that history knows a lot of John Kennedy’s but ultimately it’s up to the player himself to find the priorities in his life. It seems as if he’s returned on the right path and as such he’s picking up steam ahead of a potential Libertadores final for Flu which could be massive for what looked to be a career falling down the drain.
Despite the controversy, if he keeps this up it’s likely that Europe will aso come calling but that feels a bit further down the line. The talent and ability is there, consistency and staying out of trouble is what it will ultimately come down to.
Could we finally be witnessing the arrival of John Kennedy? Only time will tell.