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Christopher Nkunku: Positional Analysis

How might Christo fit into this Chelsea side

Chelsea Pre-Season Training Session Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Roko Škrabić is the Chief Editor of Chelsea Croatia, home of the official Chelsea FC supporters group for Croatia, where this article originally appeared. He’s been kind enough to translate it for us, just as he had done several times before. His previous contribution was a positional analysis on Enzo Fernández.

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According to the newest reports from multiple sources, Cristopher Nkunku is coming back (or better said ‘arriving’ since he hasn’t actually played for us yet) after this international break.

Make no mistake, he will be a colossal reinforcement to our team, or at least he’s supposed to be. Especially since we have seemingly bet this whole season on his goalscoring ability. The widely expected big center forward transfer has been postponed until the next summer (hello, Victor Osimhen?), as we have decided to give an opportunity to our young strikers Jackson and Broja, while the primary goalscoring burden was supposed to be laid on Nkunku. No wonder why our long standing goal problem has largely continued in this season, as we were forced to play 12 gameweeks, or in other words almost a third of the league season, without him. Hopefully, with him we will be able to see the full potential of this team at work.

Chelsea Pre-Season Training Session Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

But... where will he actually play? It might seem like a simple question, but it isn’t. In Nkunku’s prolonged absence, Pochettino has set the team up without him, and currently in the attacking positions we have a clear numerical balance. Up forward there’s Jackson and Broja, on the left it’s Mudryk and Sterling, and on the right there’s Palmer and Madueke. Exactly 2 per position, which is ideal. Nkunku could therefore unsettle the current situation and give Poch a bit of a (positive) headache. There’s, of course, the option to switch from the current 4-3-3 (with 3 proper midfielders) to the initially planned and Poch’s favorite 4-2-3-1 (with a proper no. 10). That would, in turn, unsettle the currently established midfield trio of Enzo-Caicedo-Gallagher, in which case the latter would be the most likely one to get benched.

We know Nkunku is a versatile attacking player who prefers to play in the left half space and in between the lines as a secondary striker, which means his best position in our system would probably be the 10 in 4-2-3-1. Also, we know that he knows how to play at left wing and at striker too, although with some conditions. At left wing he shouldn’t play as a wide winger hugging the byline, simply because he isn’t one. He would need to be flanked by an advanced left back who would hold width on that side and allow Nkunku to tuck inside into the half space area he thrives in. That, for example, is not Cucurella, and is Chilwell – in preseason that actually seemed to be the plan A (Chilwell the advanced LB, Nkunku the tucked in LW). He’s also not a true no. 9, so he shouldn’t be played as such, but he is relatively familiar with a (sort of a) false 9 role having occasionally played it at Leipzig. Poch himself has mentioned he counts on Nkunku in that position (alongside Jackson and Broja) multiple times in his press conferences.

Hence we have 3 possible position for Nkunku – 10, LW, (false) 9 – and it remains unclear where exactly he will be used.

Chelsea Training Session Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

The answer might as well lie in the form of Nkunku’s teammates in given moment, considering Nkunku can play in multiple positions, and especially since Poch has shown that kind of squad-picking tendencies in regards to another important player, Cole Palmer. He, although a significantly different player to Nkunku, has a similar positional dilemma, or a trilemma. He too can play in all 3 mentioned positions (with the difference being that Palmer is left footed, so he plays at the opposite wing), and he has been played in all 3 during his two and a half months at Chelsea (and killed it in all 3). For Pochettino, Palmer is a ‘first name on the team sheet’ player, and his exact position depends on whom he’s playing next to. Therefore it will not be surprising if Poch uses the same logic with Nkunku.

So if Nkunku can play in those 3 positions, that means his arrival ‘endangers’ 3 players. If he plays center forward, Jackson will be benched, if he’s the left winger, there’s no room for Mudryk, and if he’s the no. 10, Gallagher loses his spot. Sterling is somewhat safer than those 3 as he can also play on the right, which would move Palmer to the middle (where he thrives just as much). Which of those players will lose their place to Nkunku... is hard to predict. At the beginning of the season everyone would immediately guess ‘Gallagher’. After a few gameweeks the common response would change to ‘Jackson’, and now after a few suspect performances off the bench, most would probably say ‘Mudryk’. In short, Twomey was right about one thing – „football never stands still“.

So what are the possible combinations for the first team? We will assume the 4-2-3-1 formation (as we kind of play it with Gallagher too, a hybrid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1), and that Palmer and Nkunku are nailed on, as are our 100 million pound midfielders, Enzo and Caicedo. That leaves 2 unresolved spots in attack, and the exact choice of players will dictate Nkunku’s (and Palmer’s) position. Realistic candidates are Sterling*, Gallagher, Jackson and Mudryk. Broja and especially Madueke have been glued to the bench so far, while it’s unclear how Chukwuemeka’s and Lavia’s imminent returns will affect the first team, so we will leave that for some other analysis.

*This article was written before the City game in which Sterling played brilliantly and consequently now seems like a firm member of the first team... but it won’t come as a shock if he, as inconsistent as he tends to be, drops a stinker or two in the very next few games, and everyone writes him off again. Things change quickly in football, remember?

So, 4 players for 2 positions, means we have 6 combinations:

Option 1: Jackson+Mudryk

Option 2a: Jackson+Sterling

Option 2b: Jackson+Sterling

Option 3: Jackson+Gallagher

Option 4: Gallagher+Mudryk

Option 5: Gallagher+Sterling

Option 6: Sterling+Mudryk

Personally, for long term, I like Option 1 with Jackson and Mudryk the most. I think those two have already formed a good connection and for their continued development they require consistent minutes and trust. They also seem to have a higher ceiling than the other two. Gallagher, as surprisingly great as he’s been so far, still feels kind of unconvincing as a long term starter, while (like most) I’m not overly fond of Sterling – his (infuriatingly inconsistent) goals will, hopefully, be replaced (and outdone) by Nkunku.

However, it is of course immesurably irrelevant what I think. The only person that matters is Pochettino, and if I’m to guess, I feel like his choice will be the complete opposite of mine – Option 5 with Gallagher and Sterling. It seems he’s enamored with the midfield trio of Enzo-Caicedo-Gallagher, while Sterling has so far been one of his most important players. If I was ranking their chances to start for Poch, at first place I’d put Sterling, in second Gallagher marginally in front of Jackson, and Mudryk last.

If I’m right, Pochettino’s main headache will actually be – Jackson or Gallagher – or more importantly, playing with a ‘lighter’ midfield and a striker, or with a fierce midfield and no real striker. This might be our offensive plan (option 2a/b) and defensive plan (option 5) which we choose depending on the opponent.

And where is Nkunku in all that? As you may have noted, in those 3 most likely options he is playing in - all 3 positions! In 2a he’s a no. 10, in 2b a left winger, and in 5 he’s a striker. All together, in the 7 combinations shown, he’s 10 twice, LW twice, and CF thrice, reinforcing the notion that he will indeed play all 3, depending on the players around him... Just like Palmer is playing now. The only unknown that remains is which of all these will be the ‘main’ combination... Don’t know about you, but I’m very excited to find out!

Poll

What is YOUR favorite option?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    1: Jackson + Mudryk
    (58 votes)
  • 33%
    2a/b: Jackson + Sterling
    (114 votes)
  • 10%
    3: Jackson + Gallagher
    (34 votes)
  • 5%
    4: Gallagher + Mudryk
    (17 votes)
  • 25%
    5: Gallagher + Sterling
    (87 votes)
  • 8%
    6: Sterling + Mudryk
    (30 votes)
340 votes total Vote Now

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