Sport

Goals, assists, versatility: why Chelsea want to sign Christopher Nkunku

The transfer window closed a little over a month ago and Chelsea are already making moves in the market for next year. It’s rarely straightforward with Chelsea, who relieved Thomas Tuchel of his duties after spending a record £266m in the summer window, but the decision to move early for Christopher Nkunku is one that should excite supporters.

Chelsea have had mixed fortunes when signing players from the Bundesliga in recent years. They bought Timo Werner from RB Leipzig for £50m in 2020 only to sell him back to the German club for half that price this summer; and Kai Havertz, who also joined in the summer of 2020, has not always made the impact supporters would have expected. The hope is that Nkunku will buck that trend. A deal has not yet been confirmed but Chelsea are trying to avoid the possibility of missing out on the France international by outlining their intentions early.

Nkunku put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension with RB Leipzig earlier this year, which contains a £52.8m release clause. Chelsea want to finalise a pre-contract agreement with Nkunku now to avoid a scramble for his services next summer. They are willing to match his release clause – or even better it.

RB Leipzig have made a slow start to the season. They are 11th in the 18-team Bundesliga following three wins, two draws and three defeats in their first eight games. Nkunku, though, has been a bright spot. He has scored six goals in their eight games, an impressive return for a side that ranks ninth for chances created per game (9.6) in the Bundesliga this season.

Nkunku has been directly involved in 39 league goals since the start of last season, scoring 26 times in that period. He is one of only five players to have registered double figures for both goals and assists since the start of last season. Only Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick and Erling Haaland scored more goals than Nkunku in the Bundesliga last season.

What stands out most about Nkunku, though, is his versatility. The 24-year-old is able to play in any number of positions along the frontline, be it leading the charge, operating out wide or in support of the striker, though it’s worth noting he is best suited to a central role. Crucially, his performance levels do not suffer a big dip when he is deployed in a different position and this may be a driving force behind Chelsea’s desire to sign him.

Graham Potter replaced Tuchel at Stamford Bridge last month and won his first league game in charge at the weekend as Chelsea beat Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park thanks to a late Conor Gallagher strike. After a 1-1 draw with Salzburg last month, Potter elected to move from a three-man backline to a four-man defence against Palace, but the new Chelsea boss is prepared to tinker mid-match to help break down opponents, which is why Nkunku is such an appealing signing.

It was difficult to predict how Brighton would line up under Potter last season. The manager started his side in 13 different formations across the 38-game campaign, with 3-5-2 his most used system, but even then he used that setup just nine times. That unpredictability highlights how rigorously Potter prepares for each game and his in-game tactical flexibility means that Chelsea will start in one system but quickly change to another in their quest for a goal. Nkunku would help Potter continue this approach at Chelsea. Whether the manager wishes to have one striker with two players in support, or, as he did at Palace, start in a 4-2-2-2, Nkunku would be able to play to a high standard.

Nkunku also has a keen eye for a defence-splitting pass. He has made 14 key passes from open play in the Bundesliga this season – only seven players have more. For context, Raheem Sterling is top of this metric for Chelsea this season with 11. Nkunku is willing to drop deep or to the flanks to find pockets of space and receive the ball from teammates. This quality will help Chelsea transition from defence to attack with relative ease and, with a striker as rapid and lethal as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang playing off the shoulder of the last defender – provided he is still at the club this time next year – there is the potential to forge a decent attacking partnership.

That said, Nkunku does not offer a great deal from a defensive viewpoint, so playing him in a system that requires a selfless approach from the attacker would not benefit him or the team. Indeed, he has committed more fouls (six) than he has made successful tackles (two) in the Bundesliga this season, but then for a player as naturally gifted and dangerous as Nkunku, asking him to carry out defensive duties may be a waste of his talent.

Either way, Nkunku is a good fit for Potter and a player who should improve a Chelsea side that has scored just 10 league goals this season, four fewer than 19th-placed Leicester and just half as many as Arsenal. Central midfield is another area of concern for Chelsea given Jorginho’s advancing years, coupled with N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic’s ongoing injury concerns, but, with Nkunku on the market and the attack in need of a refresh, they should not pass up the opportunity to pursue the RB Leipzig star.