The meteoric rise of Christopher Nkunku by Adam Khan

The meteoric rise of Christopher Nkunku by Adam Khan

Jesse Marsch’s RB Leipzig reign has come and gone with barely a whimper. The American coach oversaw just 21 competitive fixtures in 157 days in charge.

After 17 matchdays Leipzig are not just outside of the top 4 for only the second time in their Bundesliga history, but languishing in 11th place in the table – closer to the relegation zone than the final Champions League spot.

With André Silva faltering, Dani Olmo stunted by injuries, and Brian Brobbey playing just 124 topflight minutes, RB Leipzig’s attack has been reliant on the genius of one man and one man only: Christopher Nkunku.

A PSG-academy graduate who earned his debut under Laurent Blanc, Christopher Nkunku’s career has sky-rocketed since swapping the glitz & glamour of the French capital for one of Europe’s most ambitious football projects. Since his debut in August 2019, Nkunku has been a constant in the Leipzig side, sparking Die Bullen into life with his bursts of creativity and energetic enthusiasm.

This season however, Nkunku has taken his performances to yet another level, with clubs around the continent beginning to swarm around the midfielder for his new-found goalscoring touch.

In just 25 matches in all competitions, Nkunku has scored 15 goals. Not only has he more than doubled his direct output from his first 84 matches at Leipzig, but the Frenchman is 8th in the global top 15 leagues (including international competition) for total goals and assists. 

So, as the transfer rumours intensify over the coming January window, let’s look at how Nkunku has adapted his game to become even more of a clinical ace in front of goal.

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From disoriented pressing, to a complete lack of game-control, many things can be thrown at Jesse Marsch for why his tenure in Leipzig failed so dramatically. One thing that will not though was how he positioned his star-man, playing Nkunku exclusively through the centre rather than forcing him to work in the wider channels.

This has undoubtedly played a significant role in Nkunku’s rise as a goalscorer. Not only are his distances to goal shorter, but the spaces he is taking up are far more conducive to getting on the scoresheet.

This is why Nkunku has more than tripled his volume of goals this campaign, despite taking just marginally more shots per 90. The lethal combination of his well-timed movements, potent finishing ability, and a shot-distance which is almost 2.5 metres closer to goal means we are now beginning to see Nkunku develop into a well-rounded goal threat, rather than just a creative supplier.

Particularly the number of goals Nkunku is scoring within the 18-yard box is of interest. Not only are 87% of his goals coming from inside the opposition’s penalty area, but all 7 of his Champions League strikes came within this short-distance. This is a significant change compared to his last two campaigns, and a major reason why he finished this season’s UCL on 1.19 goals per 90, compared to a measly 0.15 last season.

Nevertheless, it isn’t as if Nkunku has lost any of the creative impulses of seasons gone by. If you add his 11 assists in all competitions, Nkunku has directly contributed to 25 Leipzig goals this season – a staggering 50% of Die Bullen’s total output. Just for context, that’s 10% more than what Robert Lewandowski’s output accounts for in the Bayern squad this season.

More than the raw numbers though, what’s especially exciting about Nkunku’s creative output is how diverse it is. Whether from a well-placed cross, a delicate through ball, or an expertly timed run behind, there simply isn’t a sure-fire way for opponent’s to shut down the Frenchman’s goal-threat without leaving a backdoor open for him to exploit.

It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for Christopher Nkunku as he evolves out of the role of young prospect and into that of a full-fledged superstar. Manchester United is looking like an increasingly likely destination, given their previous interest and Ralf Rangnick’s involvement.

Regardless of where he plays come 2021, Nkunku’s big goal must be to play at the World Cup in Qatar.

Despite impressing with sparkling consistency this season, Didier Deschamps is yet to hand Nkunku his first national team call up, making the 24-year old the most expensive player in world football who is yet to feature for his national side. 

When Deschamps was called out on his snub before the latest international camp, the former Marseille midfielder admitted to believing Nkunku was “one of the serious candidates who can aspire to have this opportunity”, but felt the need to retain the continuity in his selection pool to build upon the momentum heading into November’s big event.

Regardless of the criticism directed at Deschamps’ decision, such public injustice is nothing new for a player who was let go from PSG after lighting up Ligue 1 as a teenager.

Just like in 2019 when he turned a controversial move to RB Leipzig into the catalyst for a glistening career, if Nkunku continues to excite this season, his talents will soon become too loud for even the reigning World Champions to ignore.

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