Christopher Nkunku: why RB Leipzig's attacker deserves his new contract
Christopher Nkunku has trained daily with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, worked under Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann. Improving all the time, it's no surprise that the Bundesliga's Player of the Season for 2021/22 has earned a new deal at RB Leipzig.
"He's a player we're following, he could have been on the list," said France boss Didier Deschamps on leaving out Nkunku - who had just been named the Bundesliga's Player of the Month for October 2021 - for the world champions' November qualifiers.
"He's not in it, but he's among the serious contenders who could have the opportunity to be called up for the French national team. I can only encourage him to continue."
The 24-year-old clearly heard, because he certainly did continue. In fact, he even stepped up a gear or two. Three more Player of the Month awards followed, and he was duly named Bundesliga Player of the Season after recording 20 goals and 13 assists in 34 top-flight appearances during 2021/22. Leipzig and Nkunku rounded out the campaign by winning the DFB Cup, and in June 2022 he extended his deal by two years to 2026.
Watch: Nkunku the Leizpig superstar
There is no doubt Nkunku has faced fierce competition for selection for reigning world and UEFA Nations League champions France, with Deschamps probably able to name two squads that could compete on the world stage. After being snubbed in November, though, the Leipzig attacker was determined to continue his upward trajectory.
"I was a bit disappointed," Nkunku said that month. "But I listened to the coach and he advised me to keep going. That really encouraged me. I try to reproduce the performances I had at that time. I have transformed that little disappointment into positive energy to keep working. When my time comes, I'll be ready."
He earned a first call-up in March 2022 - his form at club level making him impossible to ignore - and he had deservedly earned six caps by the end of a stellar season.
After all, only out-and-out strikers Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick and Erling Haaland finished ahead of Nkunku in the 2021/22 Bundesliga scoring charts. Not only that, but the Leipzig man was behind only Thomas Müller (16) in the assists chart.
Watch: A tactical analysis of Nkunku's game
In short, when it comes to having an impact in the final third, Nkunku is among the best in the business.
As Deschamps was compiling his first list of this World Cup year, the Leipzig man's numbers must have added up to a pretty strong argument for selection. Since arriving in Germany from Paris Saint-Germain in 2019, Nkunku has tallied 31 league goals and 36 assists in 93 appearances.
A massive boost in his goal return this season is particularly noteworthy. He tallied 15 assists in his first Bundesliga season, but just 11 goals in his first two campaigns in Germany.
"There's not really a secret," he says. "I adapted."
"I wasn't starting from scratch. When I played as a number 8, I was the kind of midfielder that managed to get a chance to score every game. There were a lot of times when I wasn't clinical enough to finish the move off. I've now built myself up physically too - I'm more able to shrug off challenges."
'Form is temporary, class is permanent' goes the saying, and while Nkunku has proven his consistency season after season, he also showed the former in 2021/22 in that barometer of top-grade performance: the UEFA Champions League.
His hat-trick in Leipzig's 6-3 loss at Manchester City in their opening group-stage game set the tone for a hugely impressive campaign for Nkunku, who ended with seven goals over six matches.
When you consider no other Frenchman - not Karim Benzema, not Thierry Henry, not Mbappe - has struck that many times in the group stage of European club football's premier competition, 'magnifique' doesn't quite do the achievement justice.
Watch: The evolution of Nkunku
"Christopher is having an exceptional season. Without doubt, he's in the form of his life and his qualities are incredible," said Achim Beierlorzer, Leipzig's then assistant coach, who oversaw the 5-0 win in Bruges in which Nkunku scored twice and helped set up a third goal.
"This season, in the space of just a few weeks, he has taken several steps forward, which means he can now be considered as a world-class player."
Former Leipzig boss Jesse Marsch once said that Nkunku "doesn't have any weaknesses", but that was not always the case. While he has now filled out his 5'10" frame, in younger years his stature was always something that sowed doubt in the mind of coaches who thought he might not be cut out for the top level. And even the man himself admits he has exceeded his own dreams.
"To be honest, no," replied Nkunku when asked if he could ever have imagined himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mo Salah, Benzema, Mbappe, Lewandowski and Haaland on a Europe-wide goalscoring and assists chart. "Two or three years ago, I was a box-to-box midfielder, I didn't have this physique. I didn't imagine this, but I have always wanted to become the best version of myself."
Gym work has seen Nkunku bulk up without losing any of his trademark explosiveness, turning him into a formidable opponent in every sense of the word.
"I'm such a massive fan of 'Christo'," says fellow Frenchman Mohamed Simakan, who joined Leipzig last summer from Strasbourg. "But there's nothing miraculous about it. Firstly, it's because he's very serious. In every training session, he gives everything. He works, he doesn't cut corners. I think he's got to the stage where he knows what he's worth and what he's capable of. Now, he's one of the forwards who can hurt you the most in the Bundesliga."
In addition to his new, more robust physique, Nkunku has game smarts, picking up and putting into practice the advice given to him by his coaches. He'd have been a fool not to, having already worked with some of the very best in the game.
Laurent Blanc, one of Deschamps' teammates in the dominant France side of the late 1990s, brought Nkunku from the PSG youth team and into first-team training. Multiple UEFA Europa League winner Unai Emery and Champions League victor Tuchel also helped mould the fledgling talent into the player he is today. And then there is the seismic impact Nagelsmann had in two years together at the Red Bull Arena.
"I was always demanding," said Nkunku, whose brother and father used to motivate premium performance by offering to buy a pair of boots if he met their targets. Nagelsmann went one or two steps further. "He looked for perfection with me. He used a lot of video analysis to help me too. I remember a sequence that made an impression on me after the game against Manchester United. He said to me, 'OK, you had a good position, but the best position was two metres to the right.' That's Nagelsmann… to within two metres!"
That sort of precision - the level of discipline and rigour that would seem excessive to most of us - was something 'Christo' had already been introduced to by one of the most notoriously demanding figures at PSG.
"It was my first year as a pro," explained Nkunku, who made 78 competitive appearances for boyhood club PSG between 2015 and 2019. "One day, we were playing a little game the day before a match. It was 1-1, there were a few seconds left to play, and I wanted to play a crossfield ball, but it went straight to the opposition. It was Edi [Edinson Cavani], he headed a goal and we lost,"
Watch: Nkunku stars in Leipzig's 6-1 demolition of Hertha Berlin
"The next day, Ibra [Zlatan Ibrahimovic] looked me right in the eye and said, 'Yesterday, I lost'. I didn't know what to say. He was serious. He was laughing, but he was serious. He made me understand that it was the first and last time he would lose a game. After that, Blaise [Matuidi] said to me, 'There you go. Now you know what's expected in training. Here, we don't lose.'"
It is a message Nkunku has taken on board with all the seriousness usually employed by the iconic Swede. And it's the side's stats, not his own, that monopolise Nkunku's thoughts.
"I don't try to do something flashy, but rather what's most effective, and at the right tempo," he said. "My perception of the game is to do the thing that makes the action move forward, which creates space, and which makes us score in the end. Modern football is all about stats. But you can also make a difference with runs, drawing fouls, sendings off…"
The assists ratio for Nkunku - who hails from the suburbs of Paris - backs that theory up.
"That's always been part of my DNA. How many times have people said to me recently, 'But why didn't you shoot?' And I always reply the same thing: 'Because he was in a better position than me!'"
That sort of talk will be music to Deschamps' ears, and Nkunku has another trait the France coach loves: versatility. Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez both picked up World Cup winner's medals in 2018 playing full-back when their preferred role is in central defence, and Nkunku offers the boss of Les Bleus even more options.
Watch: Adams: "Nkunku is something special"
Nagelsmann can take a healthy slice of the credit for that. Under the current Bayern Munich coach, Nkunku seemed almost to play in a different position each week. He quickly became accustomed to the particular facets of each, popping up as a number 8, a number 10, out wide, and even featuring at wing-back. While that speaks much for Nkunku's sense of sacrifice for his side, it was not only the team that benefitted.
"Now I know how a player is going to think in such and such a position and in this or that situation. It helps you discover other angles, other ways of positioning your body, other areas of the pitch," he explained. "When you're young and you play all over the place, you say, 'Yes, it's difficult'. I want to say to them: it'll serve you later. Now, I have that maturity to say to myself: the coach has an established game plan, fit into that. And in each position I've played, I have the feeling that I delivered."
Deschamps is now keen to see how Leipzig's Swiss Army knife will fit into his attacking setup.
"He has excellent statistics," the 53-year-old enthused just after announced his 23-man list in March. "He started as more of a wide player, but today he's much more central, acting as a striker or second striker for Leipzig. He has a lot more freedom and he's closer to the goal, which has made him much more decisive. So of course, we'll try to use him in a similar way."
"He can contribute a lot," echoed former France midfielder Vikash Dhorasoo, who was part of the squad that reached the final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
"He's good at keeping possession, bringing others into the game. He's also good at scoring goals. It's a profile Deschamps doesn't really have. And when the level steps up, so does he."
Nkunku has everything that Deschamps could require then. And the good news for the 24-year-old is that the France boss likes to stay loyal to players who serve him well.
"When things go well or even very well, I have a tendency to keep faith with the players who were in the previous squad," Deschamps explained late last year, partly justifying why more experienced internationals had got the nod ahead of the in-form Leipzig star.
With the World Cup in Qatar fast approaching, Nkunku got a first piece of silverware in Germany when Leipzig edged Freiburg on penalties in the DFB Cup final. Naturally the club talisman got the vital equaliser in normal tone before setting the tone by scoring the first spot-kick in the shootout.
He was then given a further boost when Leipzig offered him a two-year contract extension that will keep him at the club until 2026.
"We're proud and happy to have been able to keep hold of one of the best players in the world at the moment," said Leipzig technical director Christopher Vivell after the deal was announced. "There are only a few players who can match the speed, flair and mentality that Christo possesses."
For his part, Nkunku said he and the club want to go "one step further." Given the giant strides he's already made in such a short space of time, Leipzig will be excited to see how much better he can get.
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