‘His evolution is insane!’ – How Manchester United target Christopher Nkunku became one of Europe’s best goalscorers
After his stellar performance in the Europa League, helping RB Leipzig to reach the semi-finals, Pete Sharland takes a closer look at Christopher Nkunku. With the help of Fabien Esvan from Eurosport France and Robert Bauer of Eurosport Germany we trace Nkunku's journey from Paris to Leipzig as well his sudden transformation into a stellar goalscorer.
Well you might be surprised to learn that in fourth place, with 30 goals across all competitions, is Christopher Nkunku of RB Leipzig.
What makes this so surprising is two-fold, and they are linked. Firstly, before this season Nkunku had never reached double figures for goals, let alone 30. And second, the reason for the first, is that he was primarily seen as a box-to-box midfielder, creative attacking mid, or even as a winger but definitely not a forward.
So to try and figure out what has happened with his explosion we got in contact with two people. Robert Bauer from Eurosport Germany to talk his sudden growth with RB Leipzig, and Fabien Esvan of Eurosport France who followed his time with Paris Saint-Germain closely.
Let’s go back to the beginning to start with, Nkunku is one of a host of players across Europe who came through PSG’s youth academy, but went elsewhere in search of playing time. Kingsley Coman, Moussa Diaby, Ferland Mendy, Boubakary Soumare and Mike Maignan (amongst others) say hello.
“He was not considered as one of the "top" prospects when he was in the PSG Academy,” recalls Esvan.
“Of course, he was special, a hard-worker and everybody knew he would be very, very good as his former coach Laurent Bonadei told us. He developed his skills a lot and he's always had a high mentality.
“But I would not say PSG fans were upset when he left. Maybe I would say they were "mad" a few years after because he's become one of the top players in the Bundesliga.”
So why was he allowed to leave then? Esvan believes that it comes down to PSG not seeing a clear role for him. His versatility was one of the main reasons he got games in the first place, they could use him in a variety of roles. It didn’t help that he was trying to break through when playing time was a fierce competition.
But if you watched him at that time you may remember that he was seen as a creator, far more than a scorer.
“You're right,” says Esvan. “In Paris, he was more used in the heart of the game, as a "box-to-box" midfielder (his position in the academy) or sometimes as a winger.
“Like I said, his versatility allowed the different coaches to play him everywhere. Emery loved him, Tuchel as well. His ability to create situations, to read the game were key. But he never established himself as a starter due to that. He needed to go. Leipzig was the perfect move.”
Okay so then he goes to Germany. But even then the numbers give the picture of a creator, not a scorer. So what happened?
“It starts with Domenico Tedesco,” explains Bauer, offering a perspective from the German side.
“Nkunku was one of the few bright spots under Jesse March at the beginning of the season, but still fell a bit short of expectations at the time.
RB Leipzig's French midfielder Christopher Nkunku (C) celebrates after opening the scoring during the UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second-leg football match between Atalanta and RB Leipzig on April 14, 2022 at the Azzurri d'Italia stadium in Bergamo.
Image credit: Getty Images
“With the arrival of Tedesco, it all changed, specifically in terms of his goal threat, again.
“By mid-November he had eleven goals, now it's 30 (!). A few weeks ago, in an interview with L'Équipe, he emphasized that he was not surprised by his development from a solid midfielder to a major performer. ‘It's no coincidence. My goal is to go even further. When I stop, I want to be able to say to myself: ok, there are no regrets, I have pushed all my limits.’
“He also said that he had gained muscle mass, which is why he said in duels that he can now stand up better.”
Under Julian Nagelsman and Marsch Nkunku was often an attacking midfielder, not seen as a primary source of goals. But Tedesco has moved him next to Andre Silva in a front two, with Dani Olmo behind them, and the results have been devastating.
Despite this Bauer says “to be honest he's still a bit under the radar in Germany despite his great goal tally, which is also due to star strikers Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland getting most of the attention.
“He will probably have to prove it in the long term if he stays in Germany to be recognized as a 'real' goalscorer.”
Which brings us to the future. Nkunku has been strongly linked to Manchester United, which isn’t too much of a surprise given that their interim manager/future head of football Ralf Rangnick worked within the Red Bull system.
Does Bauer think Nkunku could work in the Premier League?
“If he continues to develop like this I think he's one for the Premier League, for sure, “ says Bauer.
“However, he is also repeatedly linked with PSG and FC Bayern.
“It’s difficult to say [when asked about Nkunku playing by himself or needing to be in a two], because he mostly played alongside Dani Olmo on the pitch at Leipzig, or as you mentioned, as a second striker alongside Andre Silva.”
Image credit: Getty Images
He certainly continues to develop thus far, recently earning his first cap for France. Esvan watched Nkunku a lot when he was in Paris, so to finish up, is he surprised by his development? And how is he seen within France?
“Honestly, I'm not that surprised by his development as a shot creator and as a scorer,” Esvan says.
“His former trainer in the academy, Laurent Bonadei told us ‘he had the technique, the shot, the speed and he kept working on it. He gained strength and experience afterwards to become a complete player.’
“I'll add he's clever, knows where to be on the pitch. Moreover, I would say Nagelsmann was key for his development. He's able to transform players and build them, give them tools to understand and improve their games. All in all, the fact that he played many positions, he's tactically flexible makes him a huge weapon now.
“People in France know he's shining in Germany. They know he's good and people hoped to have him in the national squad. It's done now but the competition is so fierce for him to stay, especially at his position (Diaby, Coman, Thuram, all in Bundesliga as well).
“Leipzig is known because a lot of French, or former Ligue 1/2 players went there, but Christo might need to step up once again to be definitely known from all. But his evolution is insane.”