The sporting project at RB Leipzig is one of the most exciting in world football at the moment. With the young and innovative Julian Nagelsmann at the helm, a crop of exciting talent and some fantastic attacking football, RB Leipzig are a team to follow closely in the upcoming Bundesliga seasons as they could yet challenge the Bavarian dominance. One of Leipzig’s biggest assets is their ability to discover, develop and nurture young talent along with some intelligent planning in the transfer market. The acquisition of Christopher Nkunku from Paris Saint Germain for a reported fee of £13 million was another smart piece of business from Leipzig. This tactical analysis aims to provide an analysis of what Nkunku will bring to RB Leipzig.

Who is Nkunku?

Christopher Nkunku started his career at PSG, joining the academy aged 13 and made his debut for the Parisians in a Champions League game in 2015, aged just 18. He broke into the first team along with the likes of Presnel Kimpembe and his current teammate at Leipzig, Jean-Kevin Augustin. Since his debut, Nkunku has made 78 appearances for PSG, scoring 11 times and recording three assists. In the words of former PSG coach Laurent Blanc,

“He came up from the youth team to help us, and given PSG’s strength, that can be difficult for a young player. But I noticed the ease of his technique and I don’t think I was alone. It was a nice surprise.”

Systemic adaptability 

Nkunku’s versatility and systemic adaptability is perhaps his biggest asset. The youngster has played in a variety of positions, ranging from right-winger to defensive midfielder to right-back. Nkunku played for the PSG youth sides as a central midfielder or defensive midfielder. However, his initial opportunities for the first-team largely came as a right-back or defensive winger. The last season saw a significant amount of time played in the centre of the park. Nkunku played 313 minutes as a central midfielder, 307 as a right wing-back, 214 minutes as a right-winger and interestingly even played 129 minutes as an attacking midfielder. Clearly, Nkunku is a jack-of-all-trades type of player who can do the job in a variety of positions. This, of course, poses the risk of Nkunku not specializing in any particular position and remaining a utility player but the Frenchman definitely has the technical ability to settle as a central midfielder or as a right-back/ right wing-back. This analysis looks at Nkunku in both positions.

Nkunku’s skills as a midfielder 

As this analysis will show, Nkunku has been at his best while playing in midfield. The youngster is quick, agile and relentless in his constant movement around the pitch looking for pockets of space or an opportunity to progress the ball. Nkunku had a 91 per cent passing accuracy last season, indicating an adept passing ability. Nkunku can be described as an energetic midfielder who brings off-the-ball movement to the midfield.

Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Nkunku’s movement is seen as he tries to receive the ball and allow his teammate in midfield to find space
Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Nkunku thrives in operating between the lines or in the half-spaces, especially when playing against a deep block
Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Nkunku acts as a link between the defenders and attack as well as right full-back

While not possessing as much flair as some of his teammates, Nkunku is the perfect midfielder for systems that require intense pressing and quick passes. The Frenchman is not one to take too many risks with his passes and rarely plays aerial or diagonal passes, instead preferring quick combinations with teammates or recycling of possession. Nkunku heavily relies on his dribbling to carry the ball from the deep-lying midfielders into the final third.

Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Nkunku’s stats while playing in midfield compared to other midfielders in the Ligue 1 (credit: Smarterscout) As we can see, he very rarely loses the ball and combines well with his teammates. He also tends to dribble out of trouble. His defensive contributions could do with improvement.

Playing as a right-back

Playing as a right-back or right wing-back, Nkunku is a steady and reliable option but cannot be expected to contribute as much as a specialist attacking full-back. Interestingly, his approach to the game varies greatly while playing on the flank. As mentioned above, while playing in midfield, Nkunku is more willing to take risks and attempt to dribble his way out of trouble. At right-back, the Frenchman tends to avoid trying to beat opponents with dribbling or take-ons. Nkunku instead relies heavily on combining with his teammates and finding space on the underlap rather than the overlap. This worked especially well at PSG as either Mbappe or Di Maria would drag the opposition wing-back out of position leaving space for Nkunku to underlap into. It seems that the risk of being caught out of position or leaving the defence exposed inhibits Nkunku from venturing too far forward.

Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Nkunku’s stats as a wide midfielder and right wing-back (Credit: Smarterscout) While he still retains the ball reasonably well, his attacking output is not as much as is expected of a player in such a position. Similar to his stats in midfield, Nkunku relies heavily on linking up with his teammates.
Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
As Mbappe attracts the opposition defender, Nkunku underlaps into space.

What are his weaknesses?

Nkunku is a very tidy player and rarely prone to errors while in possession. His weaknesses can be linked with his young age and relative lack of experience. At times, the Frenchman takes too long on the ball and fails to spot a teammate in space or between the lines. He would also be far more effective if he were to take more risks with his passing. This was something he addressed in a recent press conference after his move to RB Leipzig. There are many instances where Nkunku receives the ball between the lines but doesn’t release it quick enough to take advantage of the pocket of space he creates. As mentioned above, Nkunku’s ability as a versatile player could see him become confined to that role so it would be best if he settles in midfield.

Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
In this situation, Nkunku has options ahead of him but takes too long to make the pass and is dispossessed.

How can he fit in at Leipzig? 

Julian Nagelsmann favours the 3-4-1-2 formation and Nkunku could have a variety of roles to play if the German sticks to the same tactics at Leipzig. Friendly fixtures have suggested that the same tactic will be employed. If this is the case, Nkunku seems likely to take up an important role in midfield forming a double-pivot with the other central midfielder. In this role, he would be tasked with ball progression and could form a good partnership alongside Kevin Kampl. At the same time, he would offer solidity and structure in midfield. A combination of Nkunku and Amadou Haidara would be perfect for Leipzig’s intense pressing, quick passing and winning the ball higher up the pitch.

Christopher Nkunku 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Nkunku could be a part of a similar triangle in midfield for Leipzig

While it is likely that Konrad Laimer will be the first choice right wing-back, Nkunku could be a reliable backup option in that position as well. The only certainty is that whether Nagelsmann opts to continue with Leipzig’s intense pressing or switches to a more possession-based approach, Nkunku will offer a dynamic, versatile and reliable option in midfield and defence.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, Christopher Nkunku has the technique and potential to become a very important player for Leipzig in the years to come in more than one position. His versatility will be important for depth and considering that Nagelsmann’s Leipzig are competing in domestic competitions as well as the Champions League. This scout report has taken a look at his role in midfield, defence as well as how he could fit into Leipzig’s exciting and youthful team. Nkunku would do well to learn from as exciting a coach as Julian Nagelsmann.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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