Red Bull Leipzig’s French striker has an uncanny ability to create space where there isn’t any. Let’s see how.
With two assists provided in Red Bull Leipzig’s clear win over Borussia Dortmund on April 2, Christopher Nkunku has become the first Bundesliga player to reach double digits in both goals and assists this season. Precisely, he scored 17 goals (only Schick and Lewandowski have more) and provided 12 assists (Thomas Muller has 16). Even if he’s still 24, the path that has led him to become one of the biggest breakthroughs in the German championship was long and contorted. Firstly, he had a long experience shadowed by PSG stars, where he was added to the first team after his time with the academy when he was only 18. Then, the move to Red Bull Leipzig two seasons ago, where Nagelsmann mostly played him in the midfield, on the wing, or even as a playmaker (he grew up playing as an inside forward in France).
With Jesse Marsch’s arrival at the beginning of this season, also arrived the change that gave meaning to all his previous experiences: a role in the front trio in Domenico Tedesco’s 3-4-3, that gives him the freedom to both get the ball in the last third and attack the space behind the defensive line. Moved to the heart of RB Leipzig’s attack, Nkunku is proving to be a master at cutting behind the defensive line and at finishing, both skills that he forged during his previously difficult career, when he basically played every position from the midfield up. A technical inheritance that he still masters today; according to Wyscout data, he also is one of the best players in the Bundesliga for second assists (behind Andre Silva and Muller) and shot assists (2.2 per 90).
The goal he scored against Borussia Dortmund in November is the first example of how Nkunku is able to find the space to shoot by simply knowing where to be and when to cut behind the opposing defensive line.
While Gvardiol carries the ball on the left flank by the midfield, Nkunku stations between the two opposing center-backs but not exactly halfway. He’s far enough from Hummels to distance him in case of a quick sprint, and he’s deep enough to position himself on Pongracic’s blindside. With Nkunku so deep behind him, the Croatian center-back can’t keep an eye on both the ball and the man he must mark at the same time. At the exact moment when the assist is given, Nkunku is quick enough to find himself alone in front of the goalkeeper, that he dribbles by faking a shot on the far post. If you don’t trust Borussia Dortmund’s defensive reliability to judge, here’s another one of his goals, this time against Bayern Munich.
In this instance, Nkunku’s craft is even more subtle. After Laimer won the ball back in the midfield, the French striker fakes a central cut, leading Pavard to cut centrally. But It’s only a bait that allows him to go wide behind his back, again ‘hiding’ himself in the opponent’s blindside. By doing so, Pavard is forced to lose sight of the striker as he looks at the ball, and when he’s able to turn and see Nkunku, the Frenchman is already facing Neuer, whom he beats with a stone-cold shot between the legs.
Another excellent defense beaten by Nkunku this season is Manchester City’s, against which he scored a hattrick in a Champions League game (even if RB Leipzig eventually lost the match 6-3).
This is the second goal, an opportunity to appreciate the sound mind with which Nkunku continuously reads the play and the space that his teammates create around him. In this case, is Andre Silva who cuts in at the far post, carrying Aké off and creating a great distance between him and Ruben Dias. The Portuguese center-back is busy looking at the ball – carried by Dani Olmo – and can’t notice that Nkunku is cutting behind his back. The French striker was very careful, as always, not to sprint until the moment when he found himself on the opponent’s blindside, not able to see him anymore at that point. The moment when Dani Olmo crosses, Ruben Dias can only see the ball and realize (too late) that Nkunku is at the edge of the goal area.
Nkunku is a very complete player from a technical standpoint: he has great speed, both with and without the ball, great shooting, and an extremely cerebral vision. His most obvious talent, though, is invisible and, in fact, it is not easy to find a spectacular goal among those he has scored. Nkunku moves into space with the ability of a seasoned striker and what makes him so special is his ability to create space where there isn’t any. Strikers are often compared to predators for their ruthless coldness with which they kill their prey, that in this case would be the defenders and goalkeepers. In this regard, watching Nkunku actually reminds of that moment when they lie in the high grass or leaves, waiting for the perfect moment to strike their attack.