bundesliga

Christopher Nkunku: Former PSG fringe player flourishing under Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig

He's a former teen prodigy who hails from the same town as Paul Pogba and has played alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but it's at RB Leipzig that Christopher Nkunku is truly coming into his own.

The France U21 international midfielder took the bold decision of leaving his boyhood club last summer, perhaps hoping to follow in the footsteps of another PSG graduate who has flourished in Germany: Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman. And under the expert eye of Julian Nagelsmann, he has quickly become a key asset among Leipzig's upwardly mobile mob of youngsters.

When the 22-year-old penned his five-year deal in the summer, sporting director Markus Krösche enthused that the new arrival's "abilities fit our profile very well". Neither he nor Nkunku could have expected those words to be proven so true so quickly.

Watch: Nkunku scored a brilliant goal and set up two more in the 8-0 win over Mainz

In just five starts, he already has a team-high five assists - a tally bettered only by Thomas Müller, Thorgan Hazard and Jadon Sancho league-wide - as well as three goals, meaning he has been involved in a Leipzig strike every 64 minutes this season.

"I'm happy enough given it's a new league for me. Even though I know that I could do a lot more," explained Nkunku modestly. "I could always improve my statistics, there are always situations in matches where I could've made a better decision. But I'm very satisfied given the fact that it's my first season, or rather my first months here."

Accustomed to a mixture of languages and cultures within PSG's cosmopolitan squad, Nkunku has had few difficulties settling in at Leipzig. It helps that three of his new teammates – Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate and Nordi Mukiele – are fellow France U21 internationals.

"They spoke to me at length about the club," Nknuku admitted to bundesliga.com. "We spoke about how previous years have been and plans for the new year. They were already here so they knew everything."

While Nkunku is revelling in his new surroundings, his new boss Nagelsmann is clearly happy, too, given that the versatile Frenchman is the only summer arrival to have featured regularly this term. He has played in all but one of Die Roten Bullen's 12 league outings, making an impact as both starter and substitute.

"Christopher can play as a box-to-box midfielder, No.10, winger, striker," Nagelsmann explained. "I didn't want a forward who was restricted to just one position but can take up a number of positions during a game. He's versatile and has real quality in attacking one-on-ones. 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."

Renowned as a man who can get the best out of young players, Nagelsmann has deployed Nkunku in a variety of positions: as a left winger, a central midfielder and even a second striker. And he has been rewarded for putting his faith in the Lagny-sur-Marne native, who's just one goal shy of his best-ever league return: four in 20 Ligue 1 appearances for PSG in 2017/18. He is clearly enjoying life under the 32-year-old coach, who is younger than many of his former teammates in Paris.

"He's super enthusiastic, he encourages us to give our all in every training session, in every match," Nkunku acknowledged to France Football. "He's really passionate about what he does. He loves coaching and giving advice. The players all buy into what he says and I think we're going to progress with him."

Nkunku (c.) has already made impressive progress under Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann (r.). - via www.imago-images.de/imago images / Picture Point LE

Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Neymar and Mbappe in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower has also sharpened Nkunku's competitive edge, which he is getting a chance to hone even further in the Bundesliga.

"They're both great competitors and obsessed with winning," he said of the star PSG duo. "That's how you win. At PSG, we used to come up against teams who were camped deep in their own half. Here in Germany, everyone's looking to win, even the so-called smaller teams. I like it. When you play in the middle, it's more fun. You have more space and you enjoy your football more."

His diminutive 5'7" frame means comparisons with ex-PSG teammate Marco Verratti are inevitable, and Nkunku admitted he has modelled part of his game on the pocket-sized Italy international, who makes up for what he lacks in physique with on-pitch smarts: "He's not the biggest, but he knows how to use his body perfectly."

While his attacking abilities are obvious, the tigerish qualities Nkunku shares with Verratti have also helped him win 46 per cent of his duels - a weighty ratio for a player so often on the front foot - while 88 per cent of his passes have found their man.

Nkunku (r.) and Kylian Mbappe (l.) have known each other since their days at Clairefontaine, France's national academy. - FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

Yet as you would expect of someone playing under Nagelsmann, he believes there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"I think I could improve without the ball, tactically," he confessed. "My positioning and body shape. Training more and more, sprints, we’re doing a lot of that and I'm capable. That's what I need to do."

It's a frightening thought for the Bundesliga defenders who have already come up against Leipzig's multi-purpose midfielder this season – he's only going to get better…