Nordi Mukiele’s first season with RB Leipzig consisted of early disciplinary issues, prolonged periods on the sidelines, and a renaissance in its penultimate months. With the arrival of Julian Nagelsmann comes not only a new era for the club, but an opportunity for Mukiele to tear out last season’s page and have a blank canvas to re-paint his portrait.
In the season prior to his reported €14 million move from Montpellier, there was reports that Ralph Hasenhüttl had difficulties dealing with the club’s French connection, and the arrival of Mukiele only added to the problems inherited by Ralf Rangnick.
When you sign for a new club in a foreign country, there is understandably some adaptation issues; regardless, the objective is to impress the new head coach. However, when he, alongside Dayot Upamecano and Jean-Kévin Augustin, failed to take the summer fitness program seriously, it left Rangnick with anything but a good first impression.
There was little room to make up for lost time either because Die Roten Bullen’s season delved directly into competitive football. The then 20-year-old appeared in two of Leipzig’s first four Europa League qualifiers before making his domestic debut against Viktoria Cologne in the DFB Pokal.
Although he was absent against Borussia Dortmund and on the bench versus Zorya Luhansk, it looked like the sun was beginning to break through the clouds on his Leipzig career as he started the next two matches. Then, at the start of the Europa League group stage, the mist began to descend.
Before the highly-anticipated Group B opener at home to Red Bull Salzburg, Mukiele and Augustin failed to turn up to the agreed warm-up time and after a search they were found using their phones – an action that is deemed sacrilegious under Rangnick’s rule. The pair was then hauled off at half-time after atrocious performances and after the match were subsequently fined a five-digit figure and left out of the squad to face Eintracht Frankfurt.
In the absence of Lukas Klostermann, Mukiele quickly reclaimed his place against Stuttgart and went on to start five of the next seven matches. In spite of this, he was then demoted to Europa League duty, and between November 11th and February 8th he made just three appearances and did not play a single minute in the Bundesliga.
The mist had become a thick fog as it looked like the Frenchman had completely fallen out of favour. During the winter months, Rangnick provided a source of light as he highlighted the 21-year-old’s improvement in attitude and hinted at the possibility of using him as a central defender. It would be in this position where he kick-started his career in Germany.
With Ibrahima Konaté and Dayot Upamecano sidelined with injuries, Mukiele stepped in to fill the void next to Willi Orban and Stefan Ilsanker to produce a solid display in a 0-0 draw with Eintracht in February.
Once again he had to wait for another chance to arise as Leipzig’s back four proved unbreakable; though in a period of experimentation with a three-man defence from April onward, Mukiele became an important component at right centre-back and his performances helped the club finish third with the best defensive record in the league.
Without the commitment of international football, Mukiele had the time to reflect on the season gone by and in an interview with Kicker, he confessed that he was too stubborn at the start by not taking in advice. Now, it’s noticeable that his mentality has changed as he is constantly improving and two weeks before pre-season began, he was putting himself through the paces in Miami alongside Augustin.
The club had rarely scouted a player as intensely as they did for Mukiele and under Nagelsmann’s tutelage, this could well be the season he fully showcases why, having already shown glimpses with strong performances against Osnabrück and Union Berlin, as well as in pre-season.
On the right of a back three, Mukiele could prove to be an indispensable figure as he can provide what no other centre-back could in the position. Adding to his ability to thread passes through the lines, aggressively intercept, time tackles excellently, and contest aerially, he can provide another dimension in attack as he can operate in the half-space and whip crosses in from the position.
After a thunderous start to life in Saxony, things have begun to settle and the sun is well and truly shining. With there no sign of a change in the forecast, Mukiele could be set for a successful season ahead.