Christopher Nkunku

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RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku
Peter Munnelly

APRIL 20, 2022

Who is Christopher Nkunku?

Back in the 2019/20 season, after joining RB Leipzig from Paris Saint-Germain, Christopher Nkunku was being shifted from wing-back to central-midfield to inside forward to centre-forward. He was utilised as, essentially, utility player by Julian Nagelsmann in his flexible Leipzig teams. This season though, under successive coaches Jesse Marsch and Domenico Tedesco, the 24-year-old is being played almost purely as a striker.

In this much more stripped-down role of his, the Frenchman is stringing together the season of his life. Well into the 40s now for direct goal contributions, both domestically and at European level, the attacking midfielder-turned-supporting striker has been rifling in goals for fun.

His big breakout season earned him his first international recognition at senior level too. He featured twice for Didier Deschamps’ side during the most recent international break, and Nkunku is in with a decent chance of being a member of France’s World Cup squad.

RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku

Christopher Nkunku's style of play

Strengths

Weaknesses

Movement takes on another level of importance in the role Nkunku currently plays. Therefore, it’s great to see him bear so many striker-like instincts. He’s constantly lurking in the shadows of opponents, making himself difficult to mark. He’s also intelligent enough to shift lanes and adjust his body direction at a moment’s notice to ensure that he’s a persistent, and often dangerous, option to play into feet or space.

Whilst he may not have the lung-busting pace to be a counter-attack-leading runner in box-to-box situations, his acceleration over shorter spaces is at a top level to exploit any space exposed following high turnovers.

Movement away from the last line has been less visible in his current role, which has helped strip away certain inefficiencies, but when he’s required to rotate deeper, wider, or into a vacant position, he does so seamlessly.

CHRISTOPHER NKUNKU'S GOALS & ASSISTS THIS SEASON

His awareness of teammates, specifically, is fantastic. It informs so much of his own actions when receiving short. Yet, having such a fixation on teammates’ positions can also take away awareness of his own proximity. Consequently, there are also still instances where he has more space than he realises, leading to missed opportunities, especially given how comfortable he is using both feet, opening his body, and taking it on the run.

What makes this an even greater shame, and something which is restricted by his current role, is how little it brings into play his ball-carrying. Out wide, Nkunku is as sterile as dribblers come, hence his repeated struggles in wide starting positions last season.

Centrally is where he can operate at another level. His speed of footwork is exceptional with both feet. Even when receiving with his back to goal, it’s exactly this which avoids the issue of being easily dominated physically, as the cushioning of his first touches are always so immaculate.

When he’s at full pace and has an eye on a space to drive into through a narrow gap, the adjustments he makes to the ball’s path, the timing of his touches, and his acceleration are all too much to handle.

The situations where things appear a little cloudy are those akin to the take-ons out wide, where Nkunku is dealing with masses of opponents or is head on with one. This tends to reduce his awareness, as he becomes solely focused on evading the pressure, thus coming at the cost of missing open runs and delaying progression.

The overthinking involved is also present when Nkunku gets in behind. When his hand is forced, his shooting execution can be brilliant. However, when he has a lot more time, and even an opponent on his tail, he’s usually too fearful to cut across them and can become a bit frozen from a mental standpoint. So, by the time he reaches the goalkeeper, he’s not thought about how to shape his body over the ball, which foot is best to shoot with, which technique is correct, and where he wants to aim for.

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This extends to his general shot-taking, even after using his various tricks to create shooting opportunities inside the box, he rarely has the clarity to execute shots boasting consistently good placement.

It’s a testament to his movement, and the openness of some of the defences he’s faced, that it hasn’t held his goal tally back – Nkunku currently averages 0.61 non-penalty league goals per 90, supported by a nonetheless impressive 0.42 non-penalty xG average.

On the flip-side is the attacker’s creativity. The passes he completes on average are, unsurprisingly, the lowest of his career at 28.5 per 90. That being said, it is still an area of his game which can be a focal point as Nkunku is a wonderful combination player.

He is excellent at instigating combinations inside and outside of opposition blocks, and using them to inject pace into attacks, as well as to consistently pick holes in opposition lines. His ability to get passes off so quickly also makes him a shot-creating machine inside the final third, and is a huge contributor to his 12 league assists this season.

When deeper, following turnovers, his pre-scanning allows for so many first-time balls into free teammates. Additionally, it’s as the deeper ball-carrier of the lot during counters where he makes his best decisions and threads his best passes, with his slide balls still proving to be his best version of a final ball.

Another situation where there is a quality split in final ball is through the air. Although set-pieces have taken a back seat, he has still shown his talents from dead balls, but hasn’t produced it nearly as well in higher pressure open play situations.

Defensively-speaking, there isn’t as much to say about Nkunku as you might think. Atop Leipzig’s 3-5-2, him and Silva have largely been exempt from working backwards so that they can be instant threats on the counter.

This doesn’t detract from the same nagging issues that were present before, though. Whilst Nkunku is a perfectly capable timer and angler of his trigger presses, he’s still guilty of approaching in a manner that can often enough be beaten by passes and touches against the grain due to his narrow body shape.

Despite his best efforts to scan around him, deep midfielders that he’s supposed to be guarding often allude his eye-line, leading to him being quite consistently evaded by wall passes into them.

Disappointingly, Nkunku seems a little more reckless during counter-presses for these reasons also, as his harrying of the ball is more aimed towards putting maximum, and reckless, pressure on. This inevitably leads to an unhealthy number of fouls being committed, relatively-speaking.

Forecasting Christopher Nkunku's future

Nkunku’s flaming hot season is something to be admired, and it’s come in a role which still doesn’t necessarily maximise all of his outstanding assets. In Leipzig’s case, this is working well enough for them not to have to consider alternatives, but when projecting his career, playing as an inside forward seems like his best bet.

In a more safeguarded role, within a system that can maximise the advantages of his game – both from a buildup and final third perspective – he could make a difference at one of the regularly-linked, higher tier Premier League sides.

An assured role is important, though, as his lacking physicality, lack of composure and potency in front of goal, and limitations to his creativity could all be aspects that are clamped down on by opponents to a very different extent than in Germany.

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Nkunku has proved to be a lethal goal threat for Leipzig still with the promise of plenty of on-ball attributes that could yet be explored and developed by suitors.

Nkunku’s shooting ability, lacking physicality, and his technical downsides defensively could make for a tough transition period into a more demanding league.