FOR those accustomed to watching Christopher Nkunku during his time at Paris Saint-Germain, the player who has been ripping up the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig this season has been almost unrecognisable.
A perennial bit-part player at Parc des Princes, Nkunku’s last noteworthy contribution in a Paris shirt was the squandered penalty in last season’s Coupe de France final that gifted the trophy to Rennes. He made one further appearance last term, as an 86th-minute substitute against Dijon, but that fateful spot-kick – blazed high over the crossbar at Stade de France – was his last meaningful touch of the ball in French football.
With his very first touch in the Bundesliga, after coming on as a substitute in Leipzig’s 4-0 win at Union Berlin on the season’s opening weekend, he turned a headed cross from Marcel Sabitzer into the home side’s net. And he has not looked back. Six months on, he has amassed four league goals and an impressive 12 assists, four of which arrived in a remarkable 28-minute burst during Leipzig’s recent 5-0 win at Schalke.
“Christopher is full of talent,” Nkunku’s former France Under-21s coach, Sylvain Ripoll, told Ouest-France recently. “He’s explosive, dynamic, very adroit technically and he brings speed to his team’s play. He didn’t have enough playing time at Paris for his liking. He’s gone and found it at Leipzig.”
A Paris native, Nkunku joined Paris Saint-Germain’s youth set-up at the age of 13 and spent nine years at the club. After making his first-team debut under Laurent Blanc in December 2015, he played a part in three Ligue 1 title successes, but always as a fringe player. He went into last season hoping that it would prove to be a transformative one, only to find himself restricted to just 13 league starts. In a symbol of how difficult it is for young players to break into the French champions’ star-studded first-team squad, he left as part of a massive summer clear-out of academy graduates that also included Moussa Diaby, Timothy Weah, Stanley Nsoki and Arthur Zagre.
“I thought it was going to be my season. I was wrong,” Nkunku told L’Équipe in December. “I did everything in order to get there at Paris. Today, there’s no point in asking myself 10,000 questions about why it didn’t happen. I won’t get any answers. Every summer, what the club said about me was positive. But it wasn’t followed up with actions. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time.”
Leipzig were able to offer Nkunku an attacking playing philosophy, big ambitions, Champions League football and top-end facilities, but also a family feel. In addition, it was a club that already had a strong French presence in the changing room, with Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté and Nordi Mukiele ready and waiting to show their countryman the ropes.
Boasting a squad packed with attacking talent, one thing Leipzig could not promise Nkunku was playing time, but after flitting in and out of the team at the beginning of the season, he has since made himself indispensable. In that respect, his versatility has been extremely beneficial. The 22-year-old, who cost Leipzig an initial fee of €13 million, has played as a central midfielder, a second striker and a wide player on both flanks, but he is at his happiest cutting inside from the left onto his right foot.
Though initially taken aback by the intensity and physicality of the German top flight, he is now thriving. No player in the division averages more key passes per game than Nkunku’s 2.8 and in Europe’s five major leagues, only Thomas Müller (16), Kevin De Bruyne (16), Ángel Di María (14) and Jadon Sancho (14) can better his tally of assists. Responsible for Leipzig’s corners and free-kicks, he has also struck up a particularly fruitful understanding with Timo Werner, teeing up five of the Germany striker’s tally of 21 league goals.
Christopher Nkunku a revelation since join RB Leipzig for €13m. 14 assists in 22 Bundesliga games, compliments Patrik Schick & Timo Werner well, excellent first touch and adapting to his new role on the left-wing ingeniously.
— Get German Football News (@GGFN_) March 1, 2020
“It was the club I needed,” Nkunku said. “I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of playing. I feel that I’m blossoming on the pitch, that I’m a bit more liberated. The more time goes on, the better I am.”
Nkunku has been impressed by the unrelenting intensity of Julian Nagelsmann’s training sessions, as well as the head coach’s attention to detail. Leipzig are enjoying an excellent season – three points behind leaders Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and 1-0 up after the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie with Tottenham – and Nagelsmann is appreciative of the role that Nkunku has played in that success.
"He's versatile and has real quality in attacking one-on-ones,” Nagelsmann said. “He also fits perfectly with our transfer DNA as a young player with great potential who can take steps forward, just like us as a club. He's hungry for success and we're glad to have him on board."
Capped by France up to Under-21 level, Nkunku has never been called up by the senior side, but as the top French assist-provider in Europe’s major leagues, he cannot have failed to have caught the attention of national coach Didier Deschamps. Injuries to key squad members such as Ousmane Dembélé and Moussa Sissoko have created vacancies in the attacking midfield positions and in a recent France Football survey, 54 percent of respondents said that Nkunku deserved to be considered for France’s friendly games against Ukraine and Finland later this month.
Were Nkunku to make his debut against Ukraine on March 27, it would be the first time he had set foot on the pitch at Stade de France since his penalty miss against Rennes last April. His career has changed course spectacularly over the 11 months since.