'He will become a star for France' - Should PSG regret letting Nkunku leave for Leipzig?
"I wish Paris Saint-Germain all the happiness in the world," Christopher Nkunku said in an interview with Onze Mondial in the summer of 2021.
He does not have any hard feelings towards the club that raised him, but he does not miss it either.
And as Nkunku prepares to step back on the Parc de Princes pitch for just the second time since leaving for RB Leipzig in 2019, the 23-year-old Frenchman could hardly be in better form
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In fact, he has scored more goals this season than Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar combined.
Nkunku finds himself level with Robert Lewandowski in the early-season Champions League scoring charts with four goals, while only Ajax's Sebastien Haller is ahead of him after two rounds of matches.
He has also netted four times in the Bundesliga, and once in the DFB-Pokal, too. With nine goals to his name, Nkunku has already bettered his own seasonal record, which stood at seven last term.
Not bad for a player who is usually labelled as a midfielder, even though his exact position on the pitch is extremely difficult to describe.
Nkunku started out in the PSG academy as a winger thanks to his speed and supreme dribbling skills, but was frequently used centrally because his vision and passing range have always been remarkable.
As a young child he enjoyed watching Ronaldinho, especially during the Brazilian's short spell in Paris, but later on chose Marco Verratti as his role model, while some of the youth coaches saw similarities to Blaise Matuidi.
So could such versatility be the reason why Nkunku did not ever get a real chance to shine at PSG?
The club clearly rated him very highly, and it was Laurent Blanc who chose to give the youngster his debut back in December 2015, soon after his 18th birthday.
"He is a player I have liked since the first time I saw him," the former World Cup-winning defender said at the time. "It is difficult to get into the first team. You need to be ruthless, but at the same time at ease with the ball. Christopher ticks all those boxes."
However, Nkunku was only considered a useful player to have on the bench. He could step up on the left flank when Neymar was injured, and found himself spending time out on the right, in central midfield and as a striker.
Unai Emery gradually introduced him into rotation, and Thomas Tuchel gave him 13 starts in Ligue 1 during the 2018-19 season – but not a single minute in the Champions League.
Overall, it was obvious that the Parisians did not trust their homegrown talent to lead the team. In order to develop professionally, Nkunku needed to leave, just like numerous academy graduates before him.
Kingsley Coman, who proved himself at Bayern Munich after leaving Paris for Juventus at the age of 18, was a good example – and Nkunku knew that the Bundesliga could give him everything he lacked at home.
It was hugely symbolic that Coman scored the winner against PSG in the 2020 Champions League final. Nkunku, though, met the Parisians in the semi-finals that August, substituted off at half-time in Leipzig's 3-0 defeat. That was a disappointing evening, but overall his first season in Germany was extremely successful.
With a move to Emery's Arsenal blocked by PSG a few months previously, Nkunku joined Leipzig for €13 million (£11.8m/$14.6m) in July 2019, and provided 13 Bundesliga assists in 2019-20 – only Thomas Muller and Jadon Sancho were ahead of him in the charts.
He fitted magnificently into the fluid system of Julian Nagelsmann, and established an especially successful partnership with Angelino on the left-hand side.
Nagelsmann used Nkunku in at least eight different positions during their two seasons together, and his team-mates rate his talents highly.
"Christopher should become a star for France national team," goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi says – and it remains a mystery why the midfielder is yet to receive a call-up from Didier Deschamps.
"It will come when it comes," Nkunku says philosophically, as he continues to wait quite patiently for the chance to wear the blue shirt. He was not taken to Euro 2020 despite enjoying two very positive seasons in Germany, but his current form would make it especially difficult to continue ignoring him.
"I am always trying to find out how I can become better," he said in pre-season. "That is my mentality. I would like to improve my concentration on the field in order to be even more decisive. I have to work on this."
So far, he has been true to his word.
Leipzig are still struggling defensively under the guidance of new manager Jesse March, who replaced Bayern Munich-bound Nagelsmann in the summer, but for Nkunku the change has been quite welcome.
With Marsch in charge, Nkunku's role is even more flexible in attacking midfield, while the strikers are instructed to create spaces for him to explore.
Having worked tirelessly on becoming a better finisher in front of goal, Nkunku now focusing on scoring as well as providing assists. Thanks to his quick feet and even quicker thinking, he often finds himself unguarded in the penalty area – and his returns have been sensational so far.
Nkunku scored a hat-trick at Manchester City on the opening night of Champions League action and he netted early against Club Brugge too, but his goals have not proven enough for Leipzig to even earn a point in the competition thus far.
They also have Bundesliga defeats against their name already this season, but Nkunku duly scored braces in the wins over Hertha Berlin and Bochum, and finishing looks easy when he gets the ball.
"Switching clubs wasn't such a bad idea," he smiled a year ago, at the beginning of his second season at Leipzig. Now he is gradually becoming one of the brightest stars in the Bundesliga, and no doubts are left that the transfer has worked for all parties.
Nkunku would never have received a lot of playing time in Paris, but this – more confident and more clinical version of him – would definitely have been welcomed by Mauricio Pochettino.
Instead, PSG have to find a way to stop Nkunku, who will go up against his good friend Presnel Kimpembe on Tuesday.
Nkunku may wish PSG all the happiness in the world, but this week, he is out to beat them.