Serge Gnabry could be one of Germany's most important players at Euro 2020
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Sport seldom follows a linear path but few have taken a more jagged route to stardom than Serge Gnabry, a player who made only five Premier League starts in five years at Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion.
“In my team, Serge Gnabry is always playing,” said Germany manager Joachim Loew, ahead of Die Mannschaft’s opening Euro 2020 match against world champions France on Tuesday evening. With a Champions League victory, three Bundesliga titles, two German Cups, a Club World Cup, a European Super Cup, an Olympic silver medal and a European under-21 Championship to his name since leaving England, you can understand why.
Yet that all followed only 147 first-team minutes with Arsenal and West Brom between March 2014 and his £5 million sale to Werder Bremen in August 2016.
“I did have a phone call from one of the staff when he was scoring all those goals for Bayern Munich who said: ‘Is that the Gnabry we had at West Brom? Or was it his brother?’ Chalk and cheese,” says Tony Pulis, who stresses that it was not much better for Gnabry under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
“Arsenal was his mother club,” says Pulis. “They had invested all that time and money in him. In the end, really and truthfully, put your cards on the table, they didn’t fancy him and he has proved them wrong.”
It is a story which certainly prompts questions for both managers. Above all, it is a reminder that young people develop at different rates and unforeseen events can shape that process hugely.
Arsenal had other attacking talents at the time, such as Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who were equally desperate for minutes. Gnabry’s progress was also significantly disrupted during the 2014-15 season by a knee injury.
Wenger did try to persuade Gnabry to stay and extend his contract in 2016, even if the bottom line was that he had often persisted with players who would ultimately achieve much less. It had all seemed very different when Gnabry first arrived in London in the summer of 2011 shortly after his 16th birthday.
The buzz inside the club was that chief scout Steve Rowley had identified a creative talent from VfB Stuttgart of comparable quality to a teenage Cesc Fabregas. By the age of 17 in 2012, Gnabry had made his debut and become Arsenal’s second-youngest player.
He broke more regularly into the team the following season, including an excellent goal and performance in a 2-1 away win at Swansea City, but would then immediately lose his starting place. Pulis was telephoned by Wenger’s assistant, Steve Bould, shortly before the transfer window closed at the start of the 2015-16 season. “He was struggling to make headway,” said Pulis, who recalls a sense that, “going somewhere like West Brom might make him realise there [was] more to football than turning up every week and getting spoilt, which they do at the big clubs”.
Pulis was told by all his contacts that Gnabry was an unfulfilled talent. And so he said “yes”, even if he was not about to drop players such as James Morrison and Chris Brunt without being impressed by what he saw in training.
“We had good players at West Brom,” says Pulis. “He wasn’t just going to walk in the team unless he deserved to. He never showed enough. We were beating Arsenal at that time. It’s not individual for me. It’s about the team. He would have a chat. He wanted to know why he wasn’t playing. He wasn’t a bad lad – he never caused me any problems.”
Gnabry in action for Arsenal in 2014
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Jimmy Shan, says Pulis, told him that Gnabry “looked lost” during one particular match for the reserves. “Arsenal took him back and it was no great surprise that they sold him,” says Pulis.
Gnabry’s subsequent progress was phenomenal and he has scored at least 10 goals in each of the last four Bundesliga seasons, peaking with 23 in all competitions as Bayern won their treble in 2019-20. For Pulis it is simply an example that sits alongside Harry Kane, David Beckham and Jamie Vardy, players who reached unexpected heights after blossoming in their twenties.
“Serge maybe needed to go around, have a look and smell the roses outside of a big club. There’s numerous examples. Some need games and an opportunity. Some need a kick up the backside. He got the games at Werder Bremen and turned the ship. I think it’s fantastic. I’m delighted for him. I always want to see people prove people wrong.”
It is a story that perhaps also show the value of self-belief. Pulis sensed that Gnabry always had “that little air of confidence” and staff at Arsenal used to say that there was something comparable to Nicklas Bendtner, whose lack of public self-doubt was extreme.
Gnabry caused raised eyebrows during his first season at Bayern Munich when he was asked whether he felt bad keeping “big players” like Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery out of the first team. “If I don’t play there is also a big name on the bench,” he replied.
He certainly now qualifies for that description with Germany, where he is considered a certain starter in a fluid three-man attack with Thomas Muller and perhaps Kai Havertz. “Tournaments show who is a great player,” said Loew. “Serge is technically outstanding and an extremely important player for the team. He can make it to world class.”