Scritto da Calcio Estero

Christopher Nkunku: prototype of modernity

11 min

When you start reading a scouting article about a player, you always starts from the same point, which serves as the foundation to begin any analysis: name, nationality, and the role in which he plays. However, one can take a step beyond these classic and at times ignorant products to the intricacies of the game of football, moving on to better structured reports that move the bar of knowledge a little higher, devoting oneself not so much to the roles but to the tasks the player performs and potentially will perform. In this way, one gets out of the score in which the individual is placed and has a broader view, giving a perspective not only of what he is now with a particular jersey but of what he could be in any team suiting his performance.

Nonetheless, sometimes we come across players who make even this view limited, because they are able to leave behind categorizations by becoming both solid strikers and creative midfielders, tireless runners in-behind and central playmakers for ball movement, silent killers and cornerstones of the phase of pressure: these are the total players. Total because they can do everything, total because they are not imprisoned in one role or task, but they do everything by following as an indicator the most modern yet intuitive of footballing principles: space. Christopher Nkunku is one of those players, a total player who thinks football like few can and excels at everything a manager can ask for. This is, if you will, a praise for Christopher Alan Nkunku

 

Nkunku esulta dopo un gol nella stagione 2021/2022
Nkunku celebrates after a goal in the 2021/2022 season (📷/GettyImages)

The beginnings

Christopher Nkunku’s soccer story recalls the ones of so many young Frenchmen born after the first half of the 1990s and has as its unwanted protagonist an internal enemy: the hegemony of Paris Saint-Germain. With the advent of the Qatari emirs, the Parisians began the process of forming their own personal dream team, investing without limit, and creating ever-stronger battleships that have slayed not only the competitiveness of Ligue 1 but also the chances for academy youth to emerge.

There are many, many talented players who grew up under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower but never had a real chance in the blue jersey and decided to leave in search of an opportunity. Coman, Ferland Mendy, Diaby, Maignan, Ikoné, and Soumaré are just some of the players capable of establishing themselves after leaving PSG’s youth ranks, while talents such as Timothy Weah, Tanguy Kouassi, Yacine Adli, and Adil Aouchiche are candidates to retrace their steps, and some very youngsters such as Kalimuendo and Pembelè may find themselves in the same predicament once they return to Paris from loans around France.

Of all of these, Nkunku is the player who best represents the winning side in choosing to leave the home club, both for the level of performance and achievements away from the Seine and for the all-around evolution he has had as a footballer that would not have been possible under the shadow of the blue-clad phenoms. Born and raised in Lagny-sur-Marne, Paul Pogba’s hometown, Christopher arrived in Paris as a youngster in 2010 and went through the entire youth ranks until his first-team debut against Shakhtar in the Champions League just after turning 18.

Paris Saint-Germain

In his four Parisian seasons, he garnered a total of 78 appearances, playing 44 minutes on average, scoring 11 goals and providing four assists, but his role in the squad and on the pitch remained not defined and his versatility on the pitch soon turned into a label that read “no role.” In the 16/17 season, Emery deployed him for 7.6 90s (just under 8 games of 90 minutes played) in order to give rest to Neymar on the left flank but especially to Marco Verratti, relegating him to a mezzala position to exploit his passing skills. The following year Tuchel arrived and increased his employment (almost 17 games of 90 minutes played), brought him to the other flank but continued to use him as a stopgap between attack and midfield, even deploying him as a right-back.

Ligue 1 2017/18
Ligue 1 2017/18 (📷/Sofascore)
Ligue 1 2018/19
Ligue 1 2018/19 (📷/Sofascore)

Lipsia

The summer of 2019 becomes a focal pivot point for the 21-year-old Nkunku: stay in Paris to play his cards with the likely prospect of being used as a Swiss Army Knife reserve or leave and bet on himself and his growth. The proposal that convinces him to leave the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and its champions comes from Germany and it is one that “gives you wings.” Calling him is RB Leipzig, on whose bench is sitting the world’s most incensed young coach: the 32 years old Julian Nagelsmann coming from Hoffenheim, which he had led all the way to the Champions League.

The Bavarian coach’s game is a proactive game of possession and counteraggression, in which the key concepts are fluidity and space, the perfect elements to enhance Nkunku and make a player without a role an all-around player. In his first season Nagelsmann deployed him between the flank and the left half-space, where he could exploit his enormous technical and game-reading qualities in finishing. Result? 5 goals and 13 assists in 44 appearances (28.8 90s), third place in the Bundesliga and Champions League semifinals.

Bundesliga 2019/20
Bundesliga 2019/20 (📷/Sofascore)

The following season, with the departure to London of star Timo Werner, the coach asked the Frenchman to take an extra step within the game to become an offensive playmaker capable of ranging across the entire attacking third and creating play for himself and his teammates.

The number of goals increases, seven, and the number of assists decreases, eight, although the 9.2 xA is not that much different from the 9.9 of the previous season. However, Nkunku’s overall involvement increases most of all, although the percentage of minutes played still stands at 64.2 percent, just the sixth highest figure among movement players and behind department mates Dani Olmo (74.7 percent) and Marcel Sabitzer (68.1 percent). Christopher is an important player but not the star yet.

Bundesliga 2020/21
Bundesliga 2020/21 (📷/Sofascore)

The summer of 2020 brings changes for Leipzig: Nagelsmann and Sabitzer leave to Bayern Munich and on the Red Bull’s bench sits Jesse Marsch, coming from the other team with wings, Salzburg. With the help of Dani Olmo’s injury, the Marsch interregnum is based on a fundamental concept: Leipzig plays with Christopher Nkunku and ten others.

Under the new manager, the Frenchman plays 90.5 percent of the minutes, the highest figure among movement players, starts 94.1 percent of the time as a starter and is rarely replaced, averaging 81 minutes per appearance, all highest figures in his professional career.

Da notare il dato della stagione 2018/2019, l'ultima al PSG, che mostra chiaramente come Nkunku venisse utilizzato principalmente per il turnover e non come arma in più, dato che nel 58.6% delle sue presenze è partito da titolare giocando 51 minuti di media per partita ma essendo in campo appena il 29.8% del tempo.
Worth to notice the stats from the 2018/2019 season, his last at PSG, which clearly shows that Nkunku was mainly used for rotations and not as an extra weapon, as in 58.6% of his appearances he started as a starter playing an average of 51 minutes per game but being on the field just 29.8% of the time.

But not only is Nkunku placed at the center of the project, his duties on the field vary slightly but with significant results: Marsch asks him to play less towards the ball and more towards the opponent’s penalty box, so much so that in the matches played alongside Poulsen it’s the Frenchman the the team’s real striker, both in possession and out of possession, while it is up to the Danish to act as a link between midfield and attack. In contrast, in the matches played alongside André Silva, the Portuguese held the central position while it fell to Christopher to back him up, especially from the center-right zone

Heatmap 2021/22:  Nkunku ha continuato a essere un giocatore totale ma ha occupato molto di più l’area di rigore.
2021/22 Heatmap: Nkunku continued to be a total player but he started to play much more in the penalty box.(📷/Sofascore)

In short, if Nagelsmann had tried to exploit his ability to read spaces to create for his teammates from the half-spaces, Marsch exploited it to create for himself in-behind and Nkunku responded by finally exploding on the international stage. In the Champions League, he scored seven goals and dished out an assist in six games, while at home he added another eight goals and six assists, doubling his own record for goals in a season in early December.

Going deeper into the statistical analysis, over the past 365 days (at 18th December 2021) Christopher ranks in the 96th percentile for non-penalty goals and shots on goal per 90 minutes among wingers (79th and 83rd among forwards), 98th percentile for percentage of shots on goal (93rd among forwards), 91st percentile for goals per shot (72nd among forwards), and 94th percentile for npxG per 90s (69th among forwards). The increase in goals is consequent to all the data recorded on his conclusions: Nkunku shoots more, shoots more on goal, closer to the post and consequently with more accuracy.

Grafico Nkunku 2
Grafico Nkunku 3
See the Parisian evolution in Nkunku’s role: in his first season he played as an attacking inside forward in an offensive superpower, while the following year he was moved back to midfield, resulting in a drastic drop in his numbers. Very similar are the figures under Nagelsmann’s leadership.

As mentioned, these numbers are a consequence of Nkunku’s ability to read spaces and timing, to attack in-behind the opponent’s defensive line (taking advantage of the ninth highest speed recorded in the Bundesliga, 35.54 km/h) or to find position between opposing defenders in more static situations as a poacher. Moreover, positive numbers and performances have allowed him to increase his confidence under the net, showing composure and variety of solutions in front of the goal.

However, elite readings of spaces help him not only in attacking the box but also in receptions away from the goal, where he can showcase his ballistic skills, especially with his right foot, as also amply demonstrated in solutions from set pieces.

Finally, we are certainly not talking about a giant from a physical point of view, he’s about 1.75m×75 kg, but he has very strong legs that allow him to take advantage of his low center of gravity and pace frequency to maintain the lead and protect the ball.

Another logical consequence of Marsch’s required advancement was a decrease in the number of touches compared to when he played a centrale role in the final third or when he played as a mezzala during the Parisian seasons. However, it should not be thought that Nkunku tends to isolate himself from the maneuver: he touches more balls than in his first German year and is respectively in the 98th percentile for touches when compared with the forwards (78th with the wingers), 97th percentile for touches in the offensive third of the field (89th among the wingers) and 83rd for touches in the box, a statistic where he stands out among the wingers by entering the 89th percentile.

So, Christopher remains a player who likes to come deep and get the ball to build the action, and he’s an extremely useful progresser that has gradually shifted his area of action further forward, giving up some touches to increase those in the most dangerous area of the field.

Nkunku in aiuto in fase di possesso
Coming deep movements to the defense are rarer but not absent. Nkunku remains a very useful player in the build-up.
Grafico Nkunku 4
Worthy of note is the opposite trend of touches in the box compared to the defensive third of the field’s ones. In one data point there is evidence of the evolution of Nkunku’s duties on the pitch.

A reason of the drop in touches is clearly the decrease in receptions from teammates. If the trend in his targets and receptions is easily explained by the role and tasks assigned to him throughout his career, it’s more interesting to observe the continuous descent in the percentage of receptions compared to targets, caused by the increased attention given to him by opposing defenses but especially by the more clogged and complex areas of the field in which he found himself playing.

In addition, it is interesting to note that during the 21/22 season he has recorded his highest for progressive receptions, demonstrating how well he is using his ability to read space to receive consistently dangerous passes that allow him to create for himself and others.

Grafico Nkunku 5
Despite the decrease in targets and receptions, Nkunku still remains in the 86th percentile among wingers and the 93rd percentile among forwards over the past 365 days for targets and 96th and 97th for progressive receptions, respectively. Fun fact to ponder: the percentage of receptions compared to targets is in the 21st percentile compared to wingers but in the 93rd percentile compared to forwards, showing how much the assignments change.

Indeed, Christopher Nkunku’s greatest quality always remains reading space and the game, a trait that makes him a hyper-modern and scalable player at every level and in every context. However, this ability is not only exploited in going to the shot but also in creation and spacing.

The Frenchman is an exceptional player in finding space to receive by breaking the lines of pressure both at the primary level, with direct receptions, and at the secondary level, moving in relation to the movements of teammates and thinking the play one step ahead. Players of this type are virtually indefensible to a defense already busy reacting to the ball and their teammates and creating space for everyone else.

Obviously, a player who can read so well for himself can only have the vision of a passing artist, capable of tucking balls in where even the defense does not expect them thanks to his own readings and technical quality.

To top it all off, Nkunku takes advantage of his low center of gravity and pace frequency to be an ever-dangerous dribbler, keeping of the ball mainly to create space for himself to shoot towards the goal or pass to teammates much more than to dribble an opponent in a 1vs1 situation. This is also noticeable in ball-clearing situations, where he uses his control and usual reads to find space over pressure lines. He makes plays like that:

Nkunku’s numbers

How does this translate into numbers? 93rd percentile compared to the wingers in the top 5 European leagues for xA (expected assists, 99th for forwards), 98th for npxG+xA (91st for forwards), 91st for key passes, despite the decrease from past seasons due to new duties (99th for forwards).

That’s not all: he’s 94th for SCA (shot creating actions, 99th), 97th for GCA (goal creating actions, 99th), 82nd for SCA derived from dribbling (93rd) despite being just in 48th for dribbles attempted, 86th for GCA derived from dribbling (87th), and, not to be missed, 95th for won penalties, due to his ball control and the ability to physically protect the ball.

Grafico Nkunku 6
The decrease in SCAs is quite misleading because it comes almost entirely from the fact that he no longer takes set pieces for Leipzig, from which he had dished out assists throughout his first two seasons. On the contrary, GCAs and SCAs resulting from dribbles are on the rise.

So, which are the flaws? The truth is that it is very difficult to pinpoint any. One might expect him to be unskilled in aerial duels given his non-statuesque physique, but he ranks in the 79th percentile compared to the wings in the top 5 European leagues in terms of percentage of aerial duels won (70th compared to forwards), so well above average, and the goals at Manchester City showed his impact in aerial play as well.

Some might note that he is a bit reluctant to play with a weak foot (16th percentile for passes attempted from the left, 3.68 per game versus 36.98 from the right) but this is precisely a tendency rather than an inability, looking at the balls served to teammates.

One might expect the defensive commitment for a player with such a high offensive load to be limited, but we are still talking about a product of Nagelsmann and German soccer, which has man-on-man pressure across the field as its fingerprint. In fact, among the wingers Nkunku ranks in the 82nd percentile for tackles attempted (91st among forwards), 78th for pressures (90th), 99th for pressures in the offensive third (90th), and 86th for successful pressures (95th), demonstrating how he not only engages in pressing but is also good at reading (needless to say) opposing plots, so capable that he ranks in the 91st percentile for SCA from defensive actions (94th among forwards).

If we take just the forwards instead, he is in the 97th percentile for balls recovered and 94th for interceptions. Then again, Jesse Marsch immediately labeled him as “a player without weaknesses,” another way of defining the total player: Christopher Nkunku.

Future prospects

Nkunku’s near future suffered a jolt when Lispia exonerated Marsch because of very disappointing results at the start of the season: 11th place in the Bundesliga and a Champions League round that was certainly prohibitive, against former finalists City and PSG, but in which the Germans threw away their chances of qualification by losing at home to Brugge and throwing away two convincing games against the Parisians.

The bench was first momentarily handed over to Achim Beierlorzer, Marsch’s deputy, for the final Champions match with City won 2-1 while Red Bull opted for another very young coach to kick-start the new course: Domenico Tedesco, 36, who was born in Italy but moved to Germany at the age of two.

In the two post-exoneration matches, Nkunku has played in tandem with André Silva, so it is complex to define in advance how much the Frenchman’s duties will change, however in the new coach’s debut match against Gladbach Christopher confirmed his desire to continue in his scoring momentum by scoring a goal and distributing an assist, after giving a magic veil for the Portuguese striker’s double and after serving an empty-goal ball on a defensive recovery to his own teammate, which was wasted against the crossbar.

As for the more distant future, which could be dated as early as summer 2022, the obvious options for Nkunku’s further leap forward are three: Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain. The first represents a match made in heaven between football and space scientist Pep Guardiola and the perfect player to play as a center forward or inside forward in the half space in his football, thanks to technique, readings and, by now, the ability to score in any way.

The second represents a reunion between Christopher and his soccer father, Julian Nagelsmann, who could put him at the center of his game in the final third behind Lewandowski. The third would be a return home, which Nkunku himself has not ruled out, but which seems rather unlikely at the moment given the co-presence of Mbappé, Neymar, and Messi; however, if the Frenchman were to leave for Madrid, here is where the doors would reopen. The problem for all suitors will be given by the price of the price tag, which is climbing vertically and despite the fact that according to CIES it is already between 60 and 70 million, it could rise further.

There are probably many clubs and fans who are eating their hands for not having placed the heist this summer, when Christoper was acknowledged to have great passing talent but an age not of a baby star and an unimpressive scoring streak. Especially to mourn should be Juventus, which needs exactly this kind of player to complete its 4-2-3-1 hybrid, in which Nkunku would provide the quality that is lacking in searching for teammates and overcoming pressing lines and at the same time the movement in-behind counterpressing that is so lacking in this squad.

Who knows what might have happened if Cristiano Ronaldo had left a little earlier and the Vecchia Signora had time to close an unhurried deal. Now, the deal looks more and more difficult and more and more distant as Nkunku continues to dominate and Red Bull licks its chops in anticipation of the usual resounding capital gain.

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