Christopher Nkunku Is Just The Best
2:09 PM EDT on October 26, 2022
Real Madrid entered its fifth match of the Champions League on Tuesday with a near-perfect season. In 15 games across domestic and European play so far, Los Blancos had only dropped four points: two draws, one in each competition, were the only blemishes on their record. With a spot sealed in the Champions League knockout rounds and first place in Group F in its grasp, Madrid traveled to Germany for a showdown with RB Leipzig, a team it beat 2–0 back in September.
Everything looked set for the Spanish leaders to win their group with ease. Instead of walking away with a win, though, Real Madrid found out one of the most consistent truths in Europe over the last season and a half: Christopher Nkunku is the real deal.
After Leipzig notched a sloppy goal to open proceedings in the 13th minute, courtesy of center back Josko Gvardiol, Nkunku doubled the host's lead with a true striker's finish in the 18th: He found the ball at his feet in the box, turned, and absolutely rocketed it off the crossbar and in. It was as unstoppable a shot as they come:
The scariest part of that goal is also the scariest part of Nkunku as a player, at least when it comes to opponents attempting to gameplan against him: He is not really a striker. At least, he is not a striker in the purest sense of the word, preferring to usually play as an attacking midfielder or even just a pure midfielder No. 8-style player. He just happens to also have a striker's ability to pour in goals no matter where he plays. Combined with his ability to control games as a more traditional playmaker, this makes Nkunku one of the most complete attackers in the world, and Real Madrid is only the latest victim of his one-man warpath dating back to the start of last season.
Combining last season with this one, Nkunku's stats are ludicrous: 28 goals and 13 assists in 45 Bundesliga matches, with an additional 13 goals and one assist in 17 games across the Champions and Europa Leagues. He's been Leipzig's talisman in that time, with all of its attacks generally touching his feet in either the build-up, chance creation, or shooting phases. He's averaging 4.43 actions that lead to shots per match, and he completes nearly two attacking dribbles per contest. He's not a possession machine—he only completes about 34 passes per game at an 81 percent clip—but when he does get the ball's in Leipzig's system, Nkunku is always looking downfield for the most dangerous ball.
Against Madrid, Nkunku was back at it again, with as complete a match as you will see from someone against the reigning Champions League holders. According to Squawka, the Frenchman had seven touches in the Madrid box, created three chances, and even won the ball back twice in Madrid's third. (He also conceded a late penalty on a sloppy challenge in the box, but that was little more than a consolation goal by Madrid to make it a final scoreline of 3–2, so I won't hold it against Nkunku all that much.)
In short, this was the type of performance that has made the Leipzig star one of the hottest names for next year's transfer rumor mill, which had already kicked into gear this past summer. Liverpool and Chelsea are both linked to his signature, with the Blues seemingly closer to bringing him to England after what is sure to be his final season in Germany. Nkunku signed a new contract last summer that all but guaranteed he would stay at Leipzig this year but which also added a release clause of a reported €60 million for next summer—a steal for a player of his quality.
Regardless of where he is off to next, Nkunku has proven at Leipzig that he is ready for the big time. His attacking statistics are all in the top tier for attacking midfielders—he's in the top ten percent for goals, assists, shots-creating actions, and progressive passes among his positional brethren—and his positional versatility should allow him to slot either into Chelsea's three-defender system or Liverpool's more conventional 4-3-3 formation. He'd likely play as both a winger and midfielder in either system, and could even deploy in a Kai Havertz/Roberto Firmino-style center forward position for both sides; that's how multi-talented he is.
In the meantime, Nkunku has been one of the few bright spots for a Leipzig team currently floundering in eighth plane in the Bundesliga, although the team has put itself in the driver's position for the Champions League knockouts with the win over Madrid. Whether Leipzig turns its domestic season around or not, Nkunku will be there doing what he does best: scoring and creating goals, and generally driving opponents crazy. He's not on the way to being a great player, but rather, he is already there and it's time for everyone else to catch up. As Madrid found out on Tuesday, Nkunku doesn't need much to take over a game, and when he does, playing against Leipzig is a much more daunting proposition for anyone caught in his wake.