One of the biggest criticisms towards Paris Saint-Germain boss Laurent Blanc over the last few seasons has been his reluctance in giving young players their chance in the first team.
Jean-Christophe Bahebeck, playing with Saint-Etienne, is currently out on his third loan spell. Jean-Kevin Augustin has not played as many minutes as his pre-season form may have merited, and now, as one of the stars of PSG’s UEFA Youth Cup finalists, Christopher Nkunku, is pushing to becoming a regular part of Blanc’s first-team squad.
The 18-year-old midfielder has enjoyed an excellent season with the under-19 team, catching the eye as the Parisians beat Real Madrid to reach the final of UEFA’s youth tournament, where they were beaten 2-1 by Chelsea.
Nkunku’s reputation has grown, and his performances earned him a start against Guingamp in the league at the start of April. He went on to win the penalty that opened the scoring in the 2-0 victory, and now the PSG fans want to see more of their exciting young prospect.
“I thought I had a chance because there were a lot of young players in the squad. I was ready,” he told the club’s official website. “After a tough first half, I played better after the break and earned the penalty for the opening goal.”
The Lagny-sur-Marne-born midfielder was handed a surprise start in the club's first friendly game of the season against Wiener SK. PSG won 3-0, and the youngster was delighted to be part of the group, telling Les Titis Du PSG (in French) that he was very pleased to be able to train with the first team. He said he listened to advice from players and thanked Maxwell and Serge Aurier for helping him integrate and making him feel comfortable.
He also said that he has been inspired by Marco Verratti, who, while not being the biggest, knows how to use his body, and you can see that in Nkunku's game. The teenager has the same tenacious streak as the Italian. Combined with a strong upper body, he has that similar ability to keep himself between the ball and the defender.
However, he plays with much more dynamism than Verratti. When he collects the ball he always has his head up and looks for the best and fastest way to push the game forward. The youngster can pick a pass and has the ability to drive forward with the ball and quicken the tempo.
Before being involved with the first-team squad in their International Champions Cup series, the Frenchman said he also watches Thiago Motta in training, heralding the Italian international's technique and intelligence.
You can see a mixture of both players in Nkunku's game, but he is destined to play in a more attack-minded role than Motta and could be the perfect foil for Verratti in a few years.
It was against Benfica that he showed his drive going forward, winning a penalty in the second half while his team were 2-1 down. He had pushed forward, collected a knockdown in the box and tried to beat two defenders in the box.
If Nkunku is going to take advantage of his more forward-thinking nature, he will have to improve his finishing, which is something that lacks in Verratti's game, too. It was apparent in the UEFA Youth Cup final against Chelsea.
With just seven minutes to go, a good move orchestrated by Yakou Meite gave Nkunku the chance to score from 12 yards, but he failed to hit the target, pushing the ball wide. As with most youngsters, there will always be areas to improve, and he will have a few years to develop before that’s considered a weakness.
The positives well outweigh the negatives, though. Nkunku was excellent in setting up the second goal in the 3-1 win over Real Madrid in the semi-final, and it was his driving run that won his club an equalising penalty in the final.
He has earned two starts in Blanc’s XI this season, playing 161 minutes. The midfielder will likely have the chance to gain more opportunities before the end of the year to see what he can do in Ligue 1. Perhaps even doing enough to earn a start in the Coupe de France final.
“When he plays alongside other technical players, he immediately looks at home and the other players sense it too,” Blanc told the media after the Champions League fixture against Shakhtar Donestsk—Nkunku played the last three minutes. “We have several young players such as Christopher, that are working well. It’s normal that they get their chance to play a little.”
If the future of Motta or other midfielders is undecided, Nkunku has made an excellent claim that he could be a member of PSG's first team next season and for the foreseeable future.