At 24 years of age, Christopher Nkunku is delivering the best football of his young career under Domenico Tedesco at RB Leipzig this season, leading the charge during Jesse Marsch’s ill-fated spell before going up an extra level following Tedesco’s appointment in December.
After joining Paris Saint-Germain’s academy at 13 years of age, Nkunku was promoted to PSG’s B team where he’d score 5 goals in 27 matches before making his senior debut for PSG’s first team the following year under Laurent Blanc on December 8, 2015, replacing Lucas Moura after 87 minutes in a 2-0 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in their final Champions League group stage match.
Whilst he never quite managed to consolidate a starting spot during his four years at PSG, Nkunku nevertheless become an important role player under Unai Emery and Thomas Tuchel, scoring 11 goals and 4 assists in 78 appearances before heading to RB Leipzig in 2019 after being lured by the promise of more regular minutes.
Leipzig paid €13 million for the Frenchman and signed him on a five-year contract, a fee that would look like a bargain soon after. Nkunku adapted to life in the Bundesliga from the get-go and played in 32 of the 34 league matches, starting in 21 games and providing 5 goals and 13 assists, finishing as the third-top assister in Germany behind Jadon Sancho (16) and Thomas Müller (21).
Nkunku mainly played as a left-sided forward but would occasionally slot into other positions such as a central attacking midfielder or a second striker, playing an important role as Leipzig finished third in the league, 3 points behind Borussia Dortmund and 16 behind Bayern whilst also defeating Tottenham and Atlético Madrid before losing in the Champions League semifinals to his former club, with goals from Marquinhos, Ángel di María and Juan Bernat sealing the victory in Lisbon.
The 2020/2021 season was less productive for Nkunku where he played 28 league matches, starting in 19 games, and scoring 6 goals and providing 7 assists. He played more centrally this season either as an attacking midfielder or as a central midfielder in a double pivot while also featuring on the wings on some other occasions.
This season, however, Nkunku has enjoyed a meteoric rise and emerged as a superstar in Leipzig’s attack. Only Nkunku, Karim Benzema, Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappé have registered 15+ goals and 10+ assists this campaign, and while Nkunku’s Champions League journey ended in December, he remains the fifth-top scorer in the competition with 7 goals.
After defeating Real Sociedad in the Europa League, Leipzig were able to progress to the following round in unusual circumstances as their opponent Spartak Moscow was banned from the competition following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They will face off against Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta in the quarterfinals, La Dea currently sitting 7th in Serie A.
Leipzig returned from the international break with a ferocious 4-1 victory in Dortmund that sent a message to the rest of the league and increased their lead on Freiburg to three points after Christian Streich’s side lost to Bayern, and their final six matches see them take on Hoffenheim, Bayer Leverkusen, Union Berlin, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Augsburg and Arminia Bielefeld.
When Tedesco took charge of Leipzig in December, they were just four points above the relegation zone — they’re currently three points behind Bayer Leverkusen and nine behind Dortmund and trail Bayern Munich by 18 points.
Apart from their Europa League adventure and their quest for top four, Leipzig are set to take on Union Berlin on April 20 in the DFB-Pokal semifinal — if they beat 7th-placed Union, they’d face either Freiburg or second-tier Hamburger SV in the final.
Nkunku’s importance cannot be explained merely by his 27 goals and 17 assists — it goes well beyond that. He has been the creator, playmaker, needle player, attacking outlet, left winger, striker, and the leader in the final third in what has been a rollercoaster of a season for RB Leipzig.
It remains to be seen if Nkunku’s form will see him win Bundesliga Player of the Year over Robert Lewandowski, but it has won him the attention of Didier Deschamps.
Born in France to Congolese parents, Nkunku made his senior debut for Les Bleus in a friendly against Ivory Coast, starting in attack alongside Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann in a 2-1 win in Marseille before coming off the bench in a 5-0 win against South Africa in Lille.
With a contract until 2024, Nkunku will no doubt be the subject of interest this summer, but he may be best advised to stay put in Saxony in order to keep improving and leading Tedesco’s renascent Leipzig side in the final third, rather than join a bigger club and risk a substantial decrease in minutes ahead of the World Cup in November.
By: Kayode Dave Ogunbameru / @DaveOgunbameru
Featured Image: @Juanffran / Getty Images – picture alliance