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The Christopher Nkunku Conundrum

He certainly comes in, but where?

Chelsea FC v Wrexham - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Christopher Nkunku will shortly be returning to the squad and should duly be integrated into the starting XI shortly thereafter. The conundrum would then be that, while he has played as a left winger in the Bundesliga (28 appearances, 7 goals and 8 assists - 0.54 goal contributions per 90), he has most often played as an attacking central midfielder (119 appearances, 36 goals and 32 assists - 0.57 contributions per 90), and yet by far his best position statistically is a withdrawn/second striker (59 appearances, 37 goals, 21 assists - a whopping 0.98 contributions per 90).

He had essentially been in that left winger position on the summer tour until his injury against Dortmund in Chicago, but he was played in each of those positions across the front line and midfield as well. We must also bear in mind that was preseason, which can only be partially trusted as to what would happen come Premier League proper.

While his versatility is wonderful, it raises the massive question of who drops to the bench, especially once he is fully fit and firing on all cylinders.

Christopher Nkunku, all stats, percentiles versus other ‘forward’ players

My concern lies less in where or whether he will inevitably fit in, but who will be the one missing out.

Invariably, the online consensus has seemed to slot him in as a sole central striker in our current formation. While his return from that position is decent (9 appearances, 3 goals, 2 assists - 0.55 contributions per 90), he is definitely better as a pair or playing more withdrawn, as evidenced above by nearly double his goal contributions compared to the other positions. In our current setup, Raheem Sterling and Cole Palmer can certainly drift centrally if he is playing withdrawn, but that limits our ability to have any sort of hold up play or consistent central attacking presence, it nullifies a current mode of our attack that has a second runner come from deeper whose run is based on the positioning and movement of a striker in front of them, and, perhaps most pertinent, that wasn’t what contributed to his success in that position at Leipzig - more on that in a moment. This also means Pochettino is dropping Nicolas Jackson and Armando Broja, which may hinder either of their development. This link takes you to a comparison between Jackson and Nkunku, but it would not let me add Broja in the comparison because apparently (and rather oddly) FBRef doesn’t have enough data compiled on him for his inclusion in such comparisons.

His success in that dual-striker position was largely based on three things: his partnerships with André Silva and Timo Werner in 2021-2022 (or even Yussuf Poulsen at the end of the previous season), his ability to play flexibly in countless places across the front and specifically to bring his runs inside from either the left or the right flank, and the different style of play employed by Jesse Marsch to Julian Nagelsmann. Leipzig under Marsch typically played a high-pressing 3-5-2 when Nkunku saw success with a strike partner, which we have drifted away from under Pochettino. That said, their penchant for high-turnovers (thanks largely to Conor Gallagher and Cole Palmer) is quite similar to ours this season and that allowed him to wisely pick up pockets of space and get the goals and assists that he did that season under Marsch.

Leipzig’s high turnovers contributed to his success
Opta Analyst

Our stress on possession with purposeful intent has gradually gotten much better, which is similar to how Marsch wanted Leipzig to play. Our passes per sequence are roughly similar to where they have been in previous seasons, reduced just slightly (which is a good thing - we are playing less side to side passes), but our direct speed of play has increased quite pleasingly, and our attacking directness and xG have resultantly increased. Whether or not a partnership with either Broja or Jackson would work would be based on whether or not Pochettino is willing to sacrifice another forward position for a 3-man midfield with wingbacks, which, to me, seems unlikely even if it could be quite lethal once Ben Chilwell and Reece James are on the pitch consistently. Pochettino has worked hard to integrate this back four and has much more often played with one rather than a back three in his managerial career, so even if personnel or even potential raise the question, a formation change is probably unlikely.

Team sequence styles
Opta Analyst

He could also play as an attacking central midfielder, which would likely come at the expense of Conor Gallagher, who had a massive performance in the chaotic match against Manchester City. But that seems unlikely as well because of the defensive work that Gallagher has put in, his leadership on the field, and the partnerships he has developed not just in going forward with Cole Palmer, but also defensively with Moisés Caicedo and Enzo Fernández. Gallagher has often successfully been a link between our attack and the developing play behind it this season, but his defensive work rate cannot be replicated by Nkunku (see defensive stats at the top.) Here is a comparison between Nkunku and Gallagher, but below is a comparison between our current homegrown talent and our former, notoriously +£100 million, homegrown talent. In my bold opinion and a bold amalgamation of words, this is likely not a Conondrum for Gallagher...

That only leaves the left-winger position, where Raheem Sterling and Mikhailo Mudryk would be the ones missing out. Nkunku is a nightmare for any defender in a 1v1 situation, and his dribbling skills and burst of pace enable opportunities for him to separate from his mark with space to look for a pass or shot - not dissimilar to the aforementioned two. In fact, when playing as a left winger (different from his overall stats at the top), Nkunku has 4.22 take-ons averaged per 90 (not an exceptionally large number), but he completed them at a nearly 62% rate, which was second highest in the Bundesliga last season and is indeed quite remarkable. For frame of reference, Sterling averages 2.21 take-ons at a 42.7% completion this season and Mudryk has 5.22 take-ons but at just 36.9%, albeit in a much more challenging league. When playing as a winger he also has crossing as an option - not something he would have at either of the previous positions - and that is another thing he doesn’t do exceptionally frequently but does do with exceptionally high accuracy. Again, while lined up as a left winger only, he completed 2.58 crosses per 90 at a 59.44% completion, putting him third in the Bundesliga in that statistic. Again, comparatively speaking, Sterling would clock in at 0.34 at 36.2% accuracy and Mudryk literally only has 0.08 crosses per 90, nothing that can even be analysed for effectiveness. The question then comes as to whether or not Nkunku would have targets in the box at which to aim, but that is another article in and of itself.

It is possible that different players are rotated in depending on the competition we are facing and the amount of possession we are expecting to retain against said opposition. It is equally possible that Nkunku is brought back gradually and, with his initial given cameos, performances may choose his position for him. Wherever he ends up, we can hope that he seamlessly fits into the lineup again, his scoring rates continue at the levels they had been at prior to this injury, and indeed that this was the last of his injuries for the foreseeable future.


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