When the news broke earlier this month that Christopher Nkunku had signed a pre-contract agreement to join Chelsea next summer, a number of fans said the same thing.
“Chelsea bought Timo Werner from Leipzig as well you know. Getting the same vibes with Nkunku,” one Twitter user said. Another said: “I’m afraid of Timo Werner vibes with this one.”
It’s true. Chelsea did buy Werner from Leipzig in the summer of 2020. At the time, Blues supporters were exuberant at the prospect of one of the highest-rated attacking talents in Europe leading them to Premier League glory.
“The talent I think Timo has, the work ethic, his personality and humility actually, really shone through for me, when speaking to him,” former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard said when the club confirmed the signing of Werner. “So I am very excited to have him in all senses.
“He’s clearly a player that we liked. I’ve certainly followed him for a long time myself, individually just as a talented players, even before I had this job. He’s got huge talent, had a fantastic season this year but before that as well.
“We were very clear about the fact we wanted to improve. And Timo Werner is always a signing that will improve us.”
However, in his two seasons at Chelsea, Werner’s time was somewhat substandard. In 56 Premier League games, the 26-year-old – who has since returned to RB Leipzig – scored just 10 goals. Concerns the same will happen with Nkunku, when he does eventually sign, are understandable but at the same time perhaps unjustified.
So, to try and shed light on the matter, Sportupdatehub caught up with Bundesliga expert and journalist Stefan Bienkowski (@SBienkowski on Twitter). Bienkowski, who watches Nkunku on a regular basis, thinks the Werner comparisons are somewhat unfair and explained why in an exclusive interview.
“They’re only justified if they think Kevin de Bruyne, Heung-min Son and Kai Havertz are terrible players,” Bienkowsi said. “Timo Werner has been a hot and cold player throughout his career and has always relied on his pace to make up for the shortcomings elsewhere in his game. Nkunku is a very different type of player.”
Nkunku is a quintessential modern-day forward. Nowadays, players get asked to play all across the front-line, with many managers liking their attack to be fluid and unpredictable. Just see Manchester City and Liverpool in recent seasons for an example.
The France international is someone who has been tasked in playing every position across the front-line for Leipzig. Whether it’s out on the left, right or through the middle, the 24-year-old has proven his significance for the Red Bull club. See below for his average rating (via WhoScored) in numerous attacking roles this season.
Where he is most “complete”, though, is through the middle. And this is backed up by the above ratings – whether it’s in the No.10 role or as the centre-forward.
“Although he’s perhaps known for being a winger, I would say he’s developed into more of a complete forward at RB Leipzig over the past two or three seasons,” Bienkowski added. “He can play as a winger and create goals, but he’s just as comfortable playing through the middle and scoring them too.
“And he’s by no means a pushover in the box either. So he does have a penalty-box presence about him.”
Chelsea have an array of attacking talents at their disposal already and under Graham Potter, we’ve seen some great, free-flowing football – even this early on in the 47-year-old’s tenure. A positive with the following attackers – Kai Havertz, Raheem Sterling, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – is that they are all flexible and can do jobs in different positions.
Despite this, all of them bar Aubameyang have failed to nail down a position for themselves. Havertz has played a number of times as a false nine but in recent weeks he has been used slightly deeper, while Mount, Pulisic, Sterling and Ziyech have all been used in various roles behind the central striker. Some of them (Sterling mostly) have even been used as a wing-back.
So it becomes integral that Nkunku, if and when he does join, can solidify a position in Potter’s attack and not be used as a utility player. The numbers he has recorded at Leipzig over recent seasons – 20 assists and 31 goals last term – suggest that he will be used as the long-term number nine.
Aubameyang is now 33 and is on a short-term contract at Stamford Bridge, so there must be plans for the future in that regard. If Nkunku is the man to become the focal point in Potter’s system, then there will be a huge amount of pressure on his shoulders.
Chelsea know all about the talent of Nkunku and Sportupdatehub understands the club sent scouts to watch the France international over the past couple of seasons. Blues scouts were massively impressed with what they have witnessed from the Frenchman.
The club will have some sort of plan in place for Nkunku and it will have already been discussed internally where they see him playing in the future. He’s a very quick, skilful and direct player, a collection of attributes every number nine could do with and something that has now led to comparisons with one of the world’s greats in a certain Kylian Mbappe.
“As silly as it sounds to compare anyone to Kylian Mbappe, he’s perhaps the most obvious comparison,” Bienkowski added. “I’m not suggesting that Nkunku is quite as good as his compatriot, but he was being lined up as a potential replacement for the French star, had he moved to Real Madrid.
“[He’s] quick, skilful and extremely direct. The comparisons make a lot of sense.”
It’s not always been trouble-free for Nkunku, though. He joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2010 when he was just 13-years-old. He came through the academy for the French club and made his professional debut in December 2015.
After years of making brief cameos and often featuring in cup ties, Nkunku was at somewhat of a crossroads. A decision that countless footballers have had to make in their time: stay at the club and sit comfortably on the bench, or move abroad and look to play more football?
Thankfully for his career, Nkunku chose the latter and joined RB Leipzig in 2019 on a five-year deal. Bienkowsi added: “I couldn’t say for certain since I don’t cover French football, but from what I’ve read and been told the player simply wanted to pick up game time elsewhere and get out from the shadow of bigger names. Like so many players that have since left the French club to become stars in their own right.”
He cost around £11.5million, but it was a risk for the German club. But, as so often happens with the Red Bull club transfer model, their risk paid off.
The model, which is spearheaded by Leipzig director Christopher Vivell who was wanted by Chelsea recently, sees Leipzig buy somewhat unknown talent on the cheap and look to sell them on for extraordinary profit when the time is right. With Nkunku, they will have had him for four seasons by the time the current campaign is over.
Is the time right to sell him? Chelsea hope so. Nkunku thinks so and Leipzig might have to accept that.