‘Some boys look like they have been made for something. You could see it was always natural for Christopher’ recalls Franck Plaine.
Christopher Nkunku is certainly gaining a glowing reputation as one of the brightest creative talents in Europe. His numbers speak for themselves and place him in the upper echelons of attacking midfielders across the continent.
The pleasure and attraction of Nkunku is far greater than is quantifiable. Elegant, and at times effortless, the young Frenchman is a special cog in a special RB Leipzig machine.
Franck has known this for a long time. Having worked with Nkunku for three years, at both the Clairefontaine national academy and at Paris Saint Germain. Speaking exclusively to First Time Finish, he describes the journey and development of a special young player. One with an attitude and mindset to become a household name.
A 1997-98 heritage
1998 and the French national team are a pairing intrinsically linked and synonymous with each other. The World Cup triumph on home soil that summer is the bed rock of this relationship; the inspiration and benchmark for any French team that have come since.
Christopher Nkunku was less than a year old at the time, as over a million joyous fans celebrated on the Champs Élysées. An event so momentous and unifying it is compared to the French liberation from Nazi Germany in Paris, 1944.
If that world conquering side is the team of 1998, a generation of player has emerged from France born in that year, or those just before or after it. Born in 1997, Nkunku is firmly a member of this new ‘Class of ’98’.
Franck saw the fruits of the 1998 generation first hand as a fitness coach at Clairefontaine; the French national academy.
‘At Clairefontaine in that age group there was Nkunku, Marcus Thuram, Allan Saint-Maximin, Amine Harit [now of Morocco], Félix Eboa Eboa [now of Ghana]. The year after you also had [Kylian] Mbappé. It was an incredible group, and I think training with them was tougher than the matches!’ laughs Franck.
‘You could see these boys all had a great charisma, an ego. They were all challenger, competitors. In the week of a test, there would be no escaping, no “I’m injured”. They all wanted to be the best and show they were the best. I think this made a spirit among them, pushing each other to be better, faster, stronger.’
A familiar junior path
‘Christopher was not the biggest boy, quite skinny and small. He was also quite sensitive, so as a coach you had to not shout at him.’ remembers Franck.
This is not an uncommon assessment for a teenager making his way in the game. It perhaps marks him out from the others of that age group who are now observed to have larger than life personas, and expressive characteristics.
One such boy was Kylian Mbappé. ‘You could already see the little star over his head. He was different. Some experienced coaches were comparing him to Thierry Henry and could see he was faster and better at his age. He could at times be a little capricious, as is to be expected of a little boy. But he was a crazy, crazy young player.’
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Nkunku was close with Thuram too during his time at the national academy. Thuram similarly plies his trade in the Bundesliga, and the two shared a common enjoyment and fun approach to the game as youngsters.
‘A very quiet boy, but composed. With a famous name, it would be easy to go “bling, bling” and sign for the biggest clubs. He just worked quietly behind the scenes with a clear plan. For Marcus and Christopher, the father would sometimes come to training, to fetch them. The question would always be “did you have fun with your friends?” and not “how many goals did you score?”. This was very important for the boys to have a World Cup champion saying this to them.”
Those that have worked with Thuram Sr. and Jr. repeat these sentiments. That the essence of football is enjoyment above anything else. This kind of education and relationship can only have benefited a young Christopher Nkunku. Watching him today, that fun is very much a pull factor of his game.
On the way to the first team
Franck’s time with Nkunku would continue at the capital’s biggest club. Having first worked with the player aged thirteen at Clairefontaine, he would join Nkunku at Paris Saint Germain in 2013.
‘We would work with the boys to improve their match awareness, lots of situations to improve their decision making process. We could not separate emotions, from technique, from tactics. It was all integrated in their training.’
In 2015, Nkunku would make his senior debut for PSG, in the Champions League group stage against Shakhtar Donetsk. The 2015/16 season would be a record breaking one for the club. Ninety six points (thirty one clear of Lyon, thirty league wins, and a 9-0 win away at Troyes made it a record breaking season.
Nkunku, still developing his own skillset, was sniffing at game time wherever possible. Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot, Marco Verratti, Angel di Maria, Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta all featured heavily that season from midfield. Six appearances across all competitions was gentle integration.
The following year was a different proposition. PSG handed their Ligue 1 crown to a young and vibrant AS Monaco team, spearheaded by a teenage Mbappé. This was also the year of La Remontada– the Round of 16 tie against Barcelona whereby PSG lost 6-1 in the second leg after claiming the first 4-0.
Despite the turmoil, Nkunku had an improved role throughout the season. His appearances tripled from the previous year, and included his first senior goals. Across the following two years Nkunku would record eleven goal involvements in fifty six PSG appearances. Not stellar, but steady improvement. Such is the steady stream of arrivals at the club however, that it no longer guaranteed his place at the club.
The Red Bull project
Nkunku’s sporadic game time at PSG was threatening to curb his development. Not that he was not impressing, but that it was inevitable that big money players would be brought in under the succession of new coaches. The twenty one year old was soon the interest of an institution specialising in developing the best young talents.
RB Leipzig would pay a rumoured €13 million for Nkunku in July 2019 as part of a five year deal. The club has been so successful at recruiting outside of the mainstream focus that any young player brought in is immediately of interest.
‘He had a perfect path, from Clairefontaine to PSG. I think he was a bit frustrated at not getting the minutes at PSG and the position he was playing. If he had stayed at PSG, his match exposure might still be below what he has now. To be playing like this at twenty three, playing fifty games a season, is a top, top time for him.’
‘I was vey happy for him, I sent him a text to congratulate him. It was the right time and the best way for him to get minutes.’
Rarely have there been cases of the Red Bull missing the mark on young recruitment. From Haaland to Szoboszlai, to Upamecano to Werner to Daka. Joining such a club, under a young manager such as Julien Nagelsmann, was as sensible and well directed as could be made by Nkunku. The dividends are quickly paying off for both parties.
The Nkunku role
Part of the stagnation, or frustration, referred to by Franck, was in Nkunku’s role at PSG. Occassionally playing as a creative midfielder, he was nevertheless largely restricted to playing in central midfield. His unique skillset simply not designed for such labour.
Immediately at Leipzig it was clear that Nkunku’s position in the side would be every bit as fluid and hard to define as he was. A perfect match.
The club had almost trademarked the 4-2-2-2 system since their promotion to the top flight in 2016. It favours vertical build up with the two attacking midfielder playing inverted, more central roles than is customary for a winger. As the left of these two players, Nkunku seemingly had a role tailor made for him. Allowed license to come deep to get the ball and move it quickly as a ‘ten’ would, yet taking up wider positions to facilitate his movements in the half space. His first season at the club would follow this template, and yield five goals and thirteen assists as a result.
In 2020/21, Nagelsmann has almost fully converted the side to a 3-4-2-1 shape that he coveted in his time at Hoffenheim. The explosive form of left wing back Angeliño has vindicated this move that has largely sought to extrapolate goal involvement from players across the pitch after Timo Werner’s departure the previous year.
Nkunku’s role as a left sided creator has been improved further as a result. His chemistry with Werner was terrific in 19/20. The German would pull wide and target the left half space whilst Nkunku would drift centrally to receive the ball and play Werner in behind.
However this season, Angeliño’s willingness to explode down the left has left Nkunku freer than ever. Unsure of who to track, Angeliño will often bomb past the right back for Nkunku to either find, or as a decoy runner. This allows the Frenchman more time on the ball to drive forward, or exploit the now misshapen backline with a through pass. These are the roles Nkunku has been made for.
Impossible to label
Nagelsmann is rinsing this young side of its potential. Finding these unique roles for the likes of Nkunku and Angeliño is integral to their development, and consequently the team’s too.
Franck seconds this, also believing in Nkunku’s role as a creative weapon.
‘I always think he is best as an offensive midfielder. I spent three years with the boy, over two hundred sessions and saw him in many, many ways. When he is positioned inside a little bit. Taking up high spaces where he can make the play quick and the ability to penetrate with his agility, great vision and dribbling. When he is in the wide channels, his distance will delay the damage he can do.’
For a player that has always exuded elegance and ease on the ball, it is also refreshing to see him address and acknowledge the change in defensive responsibility that comes with playing in the Bundesliga.
‘Defensively he would not always contribute. But it is good to see that he has been working on his counter pressing from playing in Germany, so that is no problem now.’
‘He is very unique as he fills out many different positions. Very hard to compare him to another player that has come before.’
The excitement with Nkunku comes with this. Equally it might have proved a curse to him had he not taken the step to move to Leipzig. A totally unique player that is hard to label and pin down as to what he is, until you see him in his best role. Then you are treated to a young and creative force like few others.
Stepping into greatness
‘The club’s model fits perfectly with Christopher. Having said that, I think he will be at a big, big club soon. Not to disrespect a big club like Leipzig, but he can dream even bigger.’
Having worked with Nkunku for so long, in amongst other generational talents, Franck’s belief in him is measured and optimistic. Since arriving in Germany, Nkunku has put himself firmly among the best young creators in world football.
His six goals and four assists rank him joint sixth for all under twenty threes in the Bundesliga. He has already surpassed his league goal tally for last season, and whilst he will have to go on a remarkable creative streak to match his assist tally of twelve for 19/20, it worth remembering that he had a red-hot Timo Werner to feed, converting anything and everything.
Despite the shift in shape, Nkunku’s output has progressed nicely to reflect his role within the team. He is playing nearly seven passes per game more than last year, and nearly two more passes per game going backwards. To some this might seem like a negative step, but it also shows he is developing a tendency to link play in all areas of the pitch, bringing the central midfielders and full backs into play. He is also playing 3.39 passes into the penalty area per match, up from 2.8 in his previous year. Nkunku is arguably passing more creatively and aggressively than he did last season. That his output reads as lower is very much the cost of Leipzig sharing their goals around the team without Werner (Nkunku is top scorer on six league goals).
It is also easy to forget that Nkunku is in only his second season in Germany and as a regular starter. Drip fed minutes across a range of roles in Paris, acclimatising to the demands of a new league and culture whilst cementing himself in a crucial attacking role is no easy task. It likely will not be long before Leipzig’s arm is bent by even bigger clubs across Europe for him.
The France Question
‘I hope! I hope!’ laughs Franck at the question of whether Nkunku will feature for France at this summer’s European Championships.
The plethora of French players deserving of a call up for the tournament is sickening, and will inevitably see many miss out. Nkunku has yet to feature for the national side, and his expressive role at club level might count against him in a conservative French team.
‘If he continues in this form, I really believe he is knocking at the door. Thuram came in in the last international games. Born in the same year, same level of performances. We have a lot of players in these positions and competition is crazy. But why not?’
‘The World Cup is the following year. That for sure will be an objective for Christopher, he will be twenty five. At twenty four, to be a part of the European Championships, not as a starter but as someone coming, then see from there.’
‘He was a small boy, competing against bigger boys. So he is used to competition and fighting, so we can trust him to make it.’
Didier Deschamps is a safety first coach. It was rewarded with the World Cup triumph in 2018 and will make his team firm favourites this time around. Players born from 1991 to 2000 that Franck has had the pleasure of training.
‘I am blessed to have worked with these boys. So much talent that you now see at the biggest clubs, have won the World Cup. Just crazy.’
The joy of the game
One attaches oneself to football and the characters within it, living the extraordinary experiences of remarkable players as if they were their own.
Christopher Nkunku’s experiences have been vast and varied already. Beginning at the Clairefontaine national academy as a teenager, through to the biggest club in France, to being one of the best players in Europe’s youngest and most vibrant team.
Franck Plaine has kept his eye on him the whole way. The decisions made by Nkunku have been vindicated, and promise to have forged a brilliant career. These point to a sensible young head to support outrageous individual ability.
‘Everything he did on the ball was quick. Quick compared to all the others. Yet it always looked for him to be easy.’
This speed of thought and mind, whilst looking effortless, is the preserve of the very best players. Nkunku is on a path to become such a player. He could even be deemed at such a level now. But such is his potential and talent, spotted by the likes of Franck a year ago, that many believe he can reach the very top of the world game.
Wherever that may be, and whichever kit he is wearing, the joy of watching Christopher Nkunku is one to hold onto.
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