He came, he played, he conquered: after four seasons in the Bundesliga, Christopher Nkunku departs RB Leipzig for pastures new with Chelsea as a household name in the world game having honed his talents in Germany's highest division.
Arriving in Germany from Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 as a 21-year-old, excitement abounded around a player whose explosive potential was just beginning to bubble. His burgeoning talents would go on to become fully realised in the colours of Leipzig, with Nkunku racking up some awesome digits on the stats front while developing a powerful playing style that led to awards aplenty and his first senior caps with France.
In all, the man from the Paris suburbs scored 47 goals and provided 43 assists in his 119 Bundesliga games. Managing 90 goal involvements in just short of 120 appearances are numbers rightly reserved for the elite, and Nkunku was just that. His 2021/22 Bundesliga Player of the Season award - which came at the end of a campaign when he delivered 20 goals and 13 assists in 34 appearances in the top tier - was followed by more success in his final season at the Red Bull Arena.
A DFB Cup final win for Leipzig at the end of the 2021/22 campaign preceded a Torjägerkanone triumph in his swansong season, Nkunku's final-day double against Schalke taking him to 16 Bundesliga goals for 2022/23, level with Werder Bremen's Niclas Füllkrug.
Watch: All 46 Nkunku goals in the Bundesliga
When he first joined Leipzig - following former PSG youth and first-team colleague Moussa Diaby to the Bundesliga - few would have predicted Nkunku would have the impact he had. He was merely described as “the third summer arrival” in the tweet that Leipzig posted when Nkunku signed with the club labelling him "a midfielder".
That definition was underlined in his first season when it was assists and not goals that marked Nkunku out. He teed up 15 goals for teammates but only scored five himself – one on his debut in a 4-0 defeat of Union Berlin – with the pace of the Bundesliga something the new arrival could not keep up with.
"The key is to accept the times when we’re struggling," he explained. "I accepted that sometimes I couldn’t finish the game, I accepted that I had tactical difficulties with this new style I was getting to know, and I worked on those things. Being aware of my qualities, I knew that I could improve. Add to that the confidence the club showed in me, that helped. I just focused on myself, what I could improve in me. That helped me a lot."
His 2020/21 stats did not suggest that progress was swift as he scored just six and set up seven goals in 28 German top-flight appearances. But then came the 2021/22 season, and everything changed.
Watch: Nkunku and the art of dribbling
"I think what I do on the pitch at Leipzig has enabled me to be in the French national team, so I try to play my game while adapting to the different style of playing with the national team," he explained after being called up by France coach Didier Deschamps in March 2022.
He would make his senior international debut in a friendly against Côte d’Ivoire late that month, just desserts for a sensational season that would see him deservedly and unsurprisingly crowned Bundesliga Player of the Year.
Despite the turbulence that saw Jesse Marsch replaced by Domenico Tedesco as coach part way through the campaign, Nkunku remained one of the – if not the – first names on the teamsheet. How could anyone leave out a player who would go on to score 20 goals and register 15 assists? The answer is, they couldn’t, and didn’t, as Nkunku played all 34 Bundesliga games.
"He was already one of our best players in the first half of the season, even though as everyone knows it didn’t go very well," said RBL managing director Oliver Mintzlaff. "Under Domenico Tedesco, he has taken a further step forward in his development and he’ll continue to do that next season."
He also earned himself a slice of Leipzig club history with his part in the DFB Cup final win – Leipzig’s first major piece of silverware – a feat he and his teammates repeated a year later in what would be his final appearance for the club, even though his monumental 2021/22 efforts had earned him a two-year contract extension through to 2026.
Watch: Nkunku, 2021/22 Bundesliga Player of the Season
Nkunku's swansong campaign did not go quite so well with injury - notably a knee problem that prevented him going to the World Cup with France in late 2022 - though his 25 Bundesliga goals across the calendar year were the best in the Bundesliga and set a new Leipzig record. He also became the first Leipzig player to win the Bundesliga's top scorer's cannon, before deciding the 2023 DFB Cup final with his 70th goal and 56th assist across 172 appearances for the club.
But that award, along with the medals and countless plaudits he won during his formative spell at Leipzig, will not stop him from continuing to strive to improve still further in the colours of Chelsea, simply because that’s not only what Nkunku does. It is what he is.
"I’m really proud to have been nominated, because I think about how far I’ve come, but I remain humble, because it’s not an end in itself," he said after being named – for the first time – among the 30 nominees for the 2022 Ballon d’Or. "I have to keep going. It brings out my humble and at the same time ambitious side. I see beyond this."
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