How Mauricio Pochettino should use Christopher Nkunku after injury return

  • Nkunku is closing in on his debut after suffering a knee injury in pre-season
  • Blues officials are certain his return will have an enormous impact on the team
  • But Mauricio Pochettino faces a battle to find a space for the France international

Nkunku's return is imminent
Nkunku's return is imminent / Matthew Ashton - AMA/GettyImages

With each passing day, Chelsea fans move one step closer to seeing Christopher Nkunku's official debut for the club.

The Frenchman, who has been out since pre-season after undergoing knee surgery, is set to make his return in the weeks that follow the November international break and will hopefully be ready to start before the end of the calendar year, which should get fans incredibly excited.

The dilemma for manager Mauricio Pochettino, however, is figuring out the best way to use Nkunku.

What is Christopher Nkunku's best position?

Christopher Nkunku
Nkunku rose to prominence with Leipzig / Matthias Hangst/GettyImages

Chelsea classify Nkunku as a striker on their website but things aren't that simple. While he may have regularly featured at the top of RB Leipzig's team sheet, Nkunku rarely played as the out-and-out striker.

Often used in a little-and-large partnership with Yussuf Poulsen, Nkunku's job would be to fizz around and find space in which to work his magic. It was almost like a False Nine but alongside an actual striker as well.

Appearances for France have either come in a similar role alongside Olivier Giroud or as an attacking midfielder, where Nkunku himself believes he is at his best.

"I think it's a position that suits me well," he told Football Manager about his real-life preference. "I like being close to the goal and being behind the striker."

Nkunku has played out on the left wing at times, and Thomas Tuchel even started him at right-back once when he was breaking through at Paris Saint-Germain. Make of that what you will.

Where does Christopher Nkunku fit in at Chelsea?

Nicolas Jackson, Christopher Nkunku
Nkunku & Jackson built a strong rapport in pre-season / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

Instinctively, you'd think it would be simple to put Nkunku in the 10 role in Pochettino's 4-2-3-1. On paper, life is easy.

The reality, however, is a little more complicated.

Blues fans are falling in love with another summer signing, Cole Palmer, whose best work has come in the space behind a striker. Palmer may line up on the right wing but he plays an inverted role similar to the one perfected by Nkunku.

Conor Gallagher's outstanding form has also helped earn him minutes in that 10 spot and, given the academy graduate is probably Chelsea's Player of the Season so far, it's hard to see him being benched.

Perhaps Gallagher could drop to central midfield, where his inclusion would only require Pochettino to drop one of the £222m duo of Enzo Fernandez or Moises Caicedo. Easy. Not a big deal at all. The sort of thing owners who sink huge sums into players love to see.

Therefore, does Nkunku play at striker? Chelsea need goals and they're getting last season's Bundesliga top scorer, whose 20 goals (and 15 assists) in the 2021/22 campaign was only bettered by Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland and Patrik Schick. It almost seems too good to be true, and that's because it is, considering Nkunku has very little experience as a lone forward.

It's a similar debate to the one Chelsea fans spent the past three years having about Kai Havertz which, while not exactly an appetising prospect, is one worth getting excited about again.

How Mauricio Pochettino should use Christopher Nkunku at Chelsea

Mauricio Pochettino
Pochettino has some tough decisions to make / Alex Pantling/GettyImages

Ultimately, Gallagher's superb performances have almost made life harder for Pochettino, who now has an extra cog to fit into his machine. The England international may not be the most glamorous or valuable part of the puzzle, but he has been the most impactful and the Chelsea boss is well aware of that.

Playing Nkunku as a left winger would be fine if it weren't for Palmer's excellent performances on the right. Playing both at the same time would leave Chelsea without a pure winger, and although that's a perfectly viable tactic, it can also leave teams feeling too crowded in midfield.

Therefore, it seems likely that Nkunku will take over the 10 position in behind the central striker, dropping Gallagher deeper into midfield and sending a massive message to both Fernandez and Caicedo that any drop in standards will not be tolerated.

Expect the Frenchman to play in a number of different positions, including at striker and on the left wing, but Pochettino would be foolish not to play Nkunku in his strongest spot in attacking midfield, even if it requires a rethink when it comes to Gallagher.

It has all the makings of a real headache for Pochettino, but a welcome one nonetheless.