Christopher Nkunku: Remaining games "Cup finals" for RB Leipzig
Christopher Nkunku is looking to help RB Leipzig secure their first ever trophy by either winning the Bundesliga or DFB Cup in 2020/21, which would perfectly cap-off a brilliant captain from the young Frenchman.
Nkunku sits down with bundesliga.com to discuss his side's mentality going into the final stretch of the season, what he learned from his time at Paris Saint-Germain and why Robert Lewandowski is a player that the 23-year-old likes to learn from...
bundesliga.com: We're entering the final stage of the season and the title race is still quite tight. What do you think is still possible for Leipzig?
Christopher Nkunku: "We're four points behind Bayern. Our approach to the remainder of the season has to be the same as it has been all season. That means focussing on ourselves, taking it match by match, defending well and playing each match to win. We have five games left, so there are 15 points up for grabs. We'll do everything we can to pick up all 15 points."
bundesliga.com: How can you mentally prepare for the run-in?
Nkunku: "We would prefer to be in first place in the league of course. We have to keep working hard and keep pushing ourselves. We'll see how far we can go at the end of the season."
bundesliga.com: You're the underdogs in the title race and will have to wait for Bayern to make a mistake before pouncing. Do you think RB can do it?
Nkunku: "Everything is possible. We may not be able to win all six of our matches. That's possible. We have six matches left - six finals you could say. We have to win, no matter who we're up against. We'll give our all to pick up three points in each game. If we want to finish the season without any regrets, we have to win each game. That's the objective."
bundesliga.com: You also have a chance of silverware in the DFB Cup. Just one match separates you from the final in Berlin. How much do you want to reach the final?
Nkunku: "Yes, we're determined. We're fighting for the league and have a semi-final to play in the cup. I have spoken to my teammates and they told me that they had a final in Berlin against Bayern Munich before I arrived at the club. We want to return to Berlin. We have Werder Bremen in the semi-final next, away from home. We have to give our all to make sure we're in Berlin for the final."
bundesliga.com: How determined are you to secure the club's first trophy?
Nkunku: "Yes, that serves as additional motivation - securing the first trophy for Leipzig. That's a source of motivation. I think you can see that in every training session. Everyone is pushing. That's how you win titles - giving everything in training in order to do the same in games. We have a good mentality at the moment. We'll see what the future holds."
bundesliga.com: How important is it for you to win trophies? You have won a number of titles at PSG already...
Nkunku: "Yes, for sure. That is our objective this season and we're focused on that every day in training. To be successful in the league and in the cup. Winning titles is the objective. No one can take your trophies away from you. If you make it to the final but don't win, no one will remember that you were there - they'll only remember the winners. Winning trophies is a source of motivation. All the best players win lots of trophies. They want to win every competition they take part in. That's our aim too."
bundesliga.com: Your performances have once again improved throughout the second half of the season. Why is that?
Nkunku: "I was playing at a high level before, yes. But I've been more decisive this season compared to last season, I think. We had a tough start to the season, as we didn't have a full pre-season. I'm someone who feels very good after going through a full pre-season. This season was different. We got to the last eight of the Champions League. We had three weeks to recover. We didn't have long to prepare. Then we had matches every two or three days because of the Champions League. Unfortunately, I was injured for a month too. Although it was potentially a blessing in disguise as I was able to recover fully and make a good comeback. I'm satisfied with my performances so far."
Watch: All of Nkunku's goals and assists in 2019/20
bundesliga.com: What role has Julian Nagelsmann played in your development?
Nkunku: "I've always been fairly demanding with myself. But having a coach who is even more demanding has given me a real boost. He's a coach who works very hard on the tactics and on the details and that has helped me to develop as a player. He likes players who give their all and leave nothing out there, so I have progressed in that sense too. Previously, I would've been more cautious in terms of making sure I preserved my energy. But now, I'm able to take part in every attack and counter-attack. That's where I have developed as a player."
bundesliga.com: There is a real French presence at Leipzig with players like Dayot Upamencano, Nordi Mukiele, Ibrahima Konate and yourself. How important is that for you? How does that translate to the dressing room?
Nkunku: "We all get on very well as a team - regardless of nationality. It's a very homogenous dressing room and we get on well. I think that helped me a lot when I arrived at the club as I'm someone who is a bit reserved, a bit shy. They helped me to open up, speak to my teammates. It helped me a lot."
bundesliga.com: You have a match against Dortmund on 8 May. To what extent is this fixture a highlight for the club?
Nkunku: "I don't think it's a key moment. The first key moment will come this weekend against Hoffenheim. Like I said, we have six matches to go, six finals. Dortmund are a big club here in Germany, and that fixture may be exciting for the supporters, but we will be focused on ourselves and will treat that match the same way we treat this weekend's match."
bundesliga.com: How did you first get into football? Where did you start playing?
Nkunku: "It's the sport of my family. My father played football, my older brother as well. So I was born into it. I went to watch my older brother play and had a ball with me - that's how I got into football. And later I joined my local club. Wherever I was - be it in school or outside of school - I had a football with me."
bundesliga.com: What are your first memories of playing football? Before you joined PSG.
Nkunku: "No, it was just a case of doing what I enjoyed. Whether that be with friends or whatever. If I was ever misbehaving, my father would threaten not to take me to training. And I just couldn't accept that. My father played on that. I also have memories of my father or brother giving me challenges to do in matches. They were designed to give me confidence on the pitch, because I was always quite shy. And they would give me a reward or something afterwards. Playing football was pure enjoyment and has been the driving force in my life."
bundesliga.com: Who were your role models?
Nkunku: "[Zinedine] Zidane, of course. Cristiano Ronaldo too. Zidane and Ronaldo were the main two."
bundesliga.com: At the age of 13, you joined the PSG academy. What did you learn during your time there?
Nkunku: "It was their winning mentality. When I arrived at PSG, we were expected to win every single weekend. They didn't accept losing. That made a large impression on me when I arrived."
bundesliga.com: How did you progress there as a player? Who helped you in your development?
Nkunku: "In the academy, I had a coach called Francois Rodrigues for a number of seasons. He really helped me in my development. He gave me a very important role at U19 level and he knew me very well. He knew how to push me and I learned a huge amount from him. We got to the final of the Youth League with him. We won the French U19 Championship with him. I have great memories of my time with him."
bundesliga.com; You joined the star-studded first team at a relatively young age and went on to win the title. Which of your teammates helped you settle most?
Nkunku: "There were a lot of players who were willing to help the younger players when I arrived. I think of Blaise Matuidi; he helped me a great deal out on the pitch. He gave me lots of advice. There were also players like Serge Aurier and Thiago Motta. I played two or three seasons with him. I got on very well with him. Thiago Silva too - he was the captain and helped me a lot both in training and on the pitch. There were lots of mentors."
bundesliga.com: Were there any players there you learned from?
Nkunku: "I looked to learn from everyone around me. Such was the quality in the squad. But if I had to single out someone I would say Blaise. He had an exceptional mental capacity. But he also had an above average technical ability."
bundesliga.com: In 2019, you made the move to Leipzig and became a key part of the team. How important was this move for you in terms of your personal development?
Nkunku: "I chose this club back then because it was the best project. I visited the facilities; I was able to talk to the coach and to the sporting director before making my decision. That was important for me. I think this sort of project, with its young and competitive squad, is what I needed. I also left PSG because it was important to get regular minutes. That was my main reason for leaving PSG."
bundesliga.com: How did you manage to adapt to the Bundesliga so quickly? Does the fast game here at Leipzig suit you?
Nkunku: "Yes, I think it's an attractive league. With lots of goals and space. Teams are happy to take risks. So that's good for players like me who look for little pockets of space, and for the angles for passes. And who dribble with the ball and make life difficult for their opponents. It suits my game."
bundesliga.com: Your last three assists have been for Alexander Sörloth, and he recently set up a goal for you too. Why is it working so well between the two of you?
Nkunku: "There's always a relationship between the attacker and the players around the attacker like myself. Alex has a good footballing brain. He's good at finding the space. We've been able to develop a good relationship thanks to his strengths in that area. We have to keep pushing in order to improve. I hope we continue in the same way."
bundesliga.com: Is this something you discuss?
Nkunku: "Yes, I tell him to run into the space when I get the ball, not to hesitate and that I'll see him. And it's the same for him. If he's close to the goal but unable to find space for the shot, he's always able to find another solution. I tell him 'even if there is an opponent near me, pass me the ball'. So we're always talking to each other and trying to find the right solution. That's good for us two and it's good for the club as well."
bundesliga.com: Robert Lewandowski could set a new record this season for the most goals in a single Bundesliga season. How much do you admire him as a player?
Nkunku: "Who doesn't admire him? He may equal the record; he may set a new record. I wish him all the best. I hope he's able to break the record. He's a true number nine, a striker who knows where the goal is and who puts fear into opponents. If he scores a goal, he doesn't stop there, he scores three, four, five in the same game. That's his mental strength. He has great technical ability too in the way he finishes chances. That's what makes him special."
bundesliga.com: What can you learn from him? Even though you are not a striker yourself...
Nkunku: "Definitely. I don't focus on one person, or one role model. I look around the world of football. With a player like Lewandowski, it's his finishing, his ability to kill games off, and the fact that if he scores one, he immediately looks for the second. That's his mental strength and that's what makes him such a good player."
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