Julian Nagelsmann is the youngest manager in Europe’s top five leagues and he’s created one of the youngest, most exciting teams to watch in RB Leipzig with his personal tactics. Therefore, it would be rude not to comprise a tactical analysis through the form of a scout report on one of their brightest stars, Christopher Nkunku. The 22-year-old came through the ranks of PSG, making his debut at just 18 years old.
In July 2019 he joined RB Leipzig, for a reported £12 million. In his first season in Germany, he has already proven himself as a future star. He has already registered four goals and 13 assists, helping his team to challenge for the title. This scout report aims to analyse why his first season in Germany has been so successful.
Nkunku’s versatility was maybe his biggest asset but also his biggest downfall at PSG. However, the heatmap above shows that he has been able to solidify his place as an attacking midfielder in this Leipzig team. This has not stopped him filling in at several other positions over the season, including right-wing back against Wolfsburg and Frankfurt and centre-forward against Union Berlin and Zenit in the Champions League.
Intelligence in attack
The young Frenchman’s ability to find space and exploit his opposition has been second to none this season. His movement off the ball often creates chances for himself and his teammates. Nkunku’s finishing needs a bit of work, but he still has the football IQ to get into the best positions.
In this instance, Nkunku uses his passes to open up space for himself. Against Schalke he passes out wide to Marcel Sabitzer, dragging the outside defender to the receiver, he then follows the pass into the box which creates space for himself. Unfortunately, his teammate doesn’t see this and decides to take the shot on himself, dragging it wide. Here, Nkunku made the correct choice passing to his outside man.
Similarly, his goal against Borussia Monchengladbach came from using the outside runner to open up space for himself. He dummies to the overlapping fullback which sends the defender onto his left side, aiming to block the pass to his teammate. This enables the Frenchman to take a touch to his right and unleash a powerful strike into the right side of the goal.
His ability to create chances for himself and his teammates is proved by his 6.3 successful attack actions per 90 minutes, the most out of the Leipzig midfield. Most of his shots and chances come from his ability to find space and not rush into striking positions. His positioning in and around the box is typical of an attacking midfielder, arriving late and exploiting the space between the lines.
In the above example, Nkunku arrives late, meaning the Leverkusen defence have already picked up players to mark. The two central defenders are occupied by the two Leipzig strikers, meaning there is a great amount of space between the defence and midfield. The cross from the left finds Nkunku, and following a very heavy touch, he chips the ball into the net. The space that he found enabled him to take a bad touch and still punish them.
His goal against Mainz was similar to his strike against Monchengladbach. He identified that the two outside defenders were occupied, he scans the pitch to ensure that there are no defenders arriving late. Nkunku takes a few steps outside the box, receives the ball, and by the time the Mainz defenders realise the space in front of him, it’s too late: the ball is already in the net. His ability to not get attracted to the ball, finding space instead shows great maturity for such a young prospect.
Time on the ball
The PSG graduates’ ability to find space enables him to have more time on the ball, meaning his choice of pass is often of great quality. Nkunku has an incredible 13 assists in the Bundesliga this season, third only to Thomas Muller, of Bayern Munich and Jadon Sancho, of Borussia Dortmund. And although his excellent set-piece delivery has aided this number, his passing in open play is a joy to watch. Which is why this section is pivotal to this analysis.
In the above image, Nkunku doesn’t rush his pass (red), instead, he slows down, almost to a stop, and assesses his options. This causes two defenders to close in on him, leaving Yussuf Poulsen unmarked. The striker runs into the space behind the defence and Nkunku slides him in. Unfortunately, Poulsen is unable to compose himself, dragging his shot wide. Nonetheless, his ability to slow the ball down to a stop freezes the defenders, thus making his mind up for him.
In the same game against Schalke, where he claimed four assists, he demonstrates his patience on the ball once again. He ignores the pass in red, a through ball to Poulsen, instead he dummies his pass, meaning the defender gets dragged with the run of the Leipzig striker, opening up space behind him for Emil Forsberg. Nkunku recognizes this and slides the ball into the midfielder’s path, giving him enough time and space to open up his body and curl a left-footed shot into the corner of the net. Passes like these have been a reoccurrence this season, leaving him with 1.27 smart passes and 0.78 key passes per 90.
As mentioned before, his ability to find space in midfield is of benefit to him and his teammates. The space that he finds here, once again in the same game, enables him to glance up and evaluate his options. Instead of choosing the easy pass out to his fullback, he spots Timo Werner in a heap of space. He plays an inch-perfect pass in front of Werner giving him the run against his defender, enabling him to beat him and score, right-footed, into the corner of the goal.
Nkunku will often drop in between the defensive and midfield lines to find space, this gives him the chance to pick up the ball and drive towards the defensive line, evident by his 2.29 progressive runs per 90, the highest out of the Leipzig midfield.
For his age, his pass selection is incredibly mature, although he does show his inexperience sometimes, as he carries the ball too far or takes an unrealistic shot instead of finding a pass, this is one of his few weaknesses.
Against Benfica in the Champions League, Nkunku is in a great position to find a teammate. He has two great options to lay the ball off, but instead, he takes an extra touch, allowing the Benfica defenders to realise these two options. Subsequently cutting them off. His decision making will become better with experience and make him an even better playmaker.
Given his versatility to play defensive positions, Nkunku’s defence has come into question. But after analysing his defensive style, it is clear that he is better defending from the front. The Frenchman’s work ethic and physicality, as well as his ability to read the game, makes him perfect for Nagelsmann’s pressing tactics and RB Leipzig.
Against FC Köln, as soon as Leipzig lose possession, they look to gain it back straight away. They do this by executing the high press to perfection. Nkunku resists the urge to rush to the ball carrier and instead presses him whilst simultaneously blocking the option for a pass (red arrow). He continues to press the Koln player back towards his goal. This leads to Nkunku dispossessing his opponent and delivering a perfect low cross to Werner who is able to tap home unmarked.
Nkunku only has 0.16 attempted tackles per 90, but this analysis has proved that there are different ways to defend, rather stopping others receiving the ball, evident in his 2.62 interceptions per 90 and 5.56 defensive duels per 90, winning 54.2% of these.
In their Champions League game against Tottenham, Nkunku identifies that the Spurs defenders are in trouble and looking for an out-ball. As soon as he realises Vertonghen will receive the ball, the Frenchman angles his body towards the side-line, pressing the defender out wide, thus cutting off his options on the inside. With his speed, he is also able to block the path to the fullback. This leads to Vertonghen lumping the ball aimlessly downfield, and Leipzig regains possession, which is the epitome of Nagelsmann’s tactics.
This scout report has established that Nkunku fits well into his team’s defensive style, we can rule that out as a weakness. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Frenchman has only scored four goals this term. His shooting stats show 2.05 shots per 90, 48% of these on target, which isn’t too bad for a midfielder. The problem here is his goal conversion rate of only 8%. A statistic that shows Nkunku’s finishing in front of goal leaves a lot to be desired.
In the two situations above, Nkunku finds himself in incredible positions, and his teammates were able to find him. On both occasions, he takes a fantastic first touch and appears to set himself well, but precedes to fire his shot straight at the goalkeeper. Whenever he is in front of goal his calmness disappears, he appears to panic, not being able to find the corners of the net. Although he rarely plays striker, improving his finishing would be a great asset. This, joined with his ability to find space in and around the 18-yard box would prove damaging to oppositions.
This scout report has proved that Christopher Nkunku’s first season at RB Leipzig and indeed his first season getting regular playing time has been sensational. Tallying four goals and 13 assists in the Bundesliga is incredible for any player, let alone a 22-year-old in his first German season. This analysis shows that he fits in perfectly to his coach’s tactics. If he can carry this form into next season and improve his finishing, it would be of no surprise if a top European club splashed their cash on him, however, Nagelsmann would sure want to keep him!