It’s been a frustrating kind of season for Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Christopher Nkunku. He broke into the first-team squad last term, making 20 appearances and playing 1307 minutes.
This season, he has been feeding off scraps. A fortnight ago, he had played 17 times but had amassed only 164 minutes of actual playing time.
Neymar’s injury, however, has opened the door for the 20-year-old to earn himself a more prominent place in the plans of the Parc des Princes club.
It has been an opportunity that the Paris native has taken with both hands. Afforded his first Ligue 1 start against Troyes a week ago, he marked the occasion with a goal.
As head coach Unai Emery nursed his squad following the disappointing Champions League exit to Real Madrid, Nkunku was again given the opportunity to take the spotlight, this time at home against Metz this past weekend.
He played with great initiative and an astute sense of the collective, taking his chance emphatically.
With 20 minutes gone, he peeled off his marker to receive a Marco Verratti pass, creating enough room for himself to take a touch and angle a shot into the corner of the net. Shortly after, he had his third in two games, finishing precisely from the edge of the box.
One goal with his left foot, one with his right, he was denied a perfect hat-trick only when his header was disallowed for offside on the stroke of half-time. Nevertheless, it was an outing that was more than satisfactory.
“The double I scored was a real joy, especially since I’ve not had much playing time this season,” he explained after the game. “I knew that sooner or later, this chance would come. I hope I can continue to take it.”
Given how peripheral he has been to the team, he has maintained a remarkably cool head.
“There’s no feeling of revenge,” said the midfielder, who has been with PSG since 2010. “You know that the team is built of some players more than others. We are young, we learn alongside great players.”
Nkunku has not been a player without suitors, but is proving useful to the PSG’s cause. Although he has not earned many minutes this term, his ability to play in several different roles has made him valued by Emery.
Indeed, the left-wing berth he has fulfilled in the last fortnight is not where he would typically be more at home, preferring a central midfield berth. He has not generally been recognised – at first-team level, at least – as someone capable of playing higher up the field.
With a low centre of gravity, he is comfortable in possession and is prepared to work defensively, so it is little surprise that he has been held in comparison to one team-mate in particular.
“I’m inspired by the game of Marco Verratti, who is not big but knows how to use his body perfectly,” Nkunku said in 2015 after breaking into the team.
But there is, however, a question of progression. Nkunku cannot develop to his full potential with only fleeting cameos, but equally the prospect of him earning a significantly greater number of minutes in Paris is slim, despite his fine form.
There were numerous loan offers made for him last summer and again in January, and come the summer there are likely to be similar approaches.
Recently being knocked down to PSG’s seventh youngest player in history by Timothy Weah, there is a sense that this season has been something of a step backwards for Nkunku.
To begin moving forward again, perhaps it is time to explore a loan option.
He has shown he is too good a player to be frustrated on the bench.