This weekend Serge Gnabry rolled off the bench to dink a delightful back post finish over FC Cologne’s keeper to continue what has been a breakout season for the former Arsenal man.
After bagging a scorcher in just his second appearance (see below), Gnabry’s really kicked on and tally of 11 Bundesliga goals, from just 22 starts, represents a stellar return.
This feat becomes more impressive when you consider he’s playing as a left sided midfielder rather than striker. It becomes particularly nifty when you realise Werder have struggled for long periods this year, occupying a relegation spot as recently as February 18th.
Gallingly for Gooners, this weekend’s goal mean he’s bagged more league strikes than all of their forwards bar Alexis.
This fine early season form saw him win a first call-up to the German senior team, an achievement he crowned with a hat-trick on debut against minnows San Marino. This capped a remarkable turnaround following a couple of wasted years that ultimately forced him to walk away from the Emirates last summer.
Drafted into the first team in 2013/14 as injuries typically mounted, 17-year-old Gnabry immediately impressed. Making 14 appearances before injury curtailed his season, he was an FA Cup winner whilst earning himself a Golden Boy nomination and a new five-year contract.
Long term injury sustained against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last 16 then saw him sit out an entire year before he was somewhat bafflingly sent on a season-long loan to Tony Pulis’ West Brom for 2015/16.
Tasked with playing an alien brand of hugely defensive hoof-ball, the German flier didn’t fit the Pulis mould, often failing to make the matchday squad altogether, and was bussed back to Arsenal in January having seen a paltry 12 minutes of league action.
Having come unstuck against the Welshman’s sides for nearly a decade now, it seems odd that Wenger would send such a technically dazzling young player to practise long throws and the art of the 7-man low block for a year. More progressive managers such as Koeman at Southampton, Martinez at Everton and Monk at Swansea would all have undoubtedly been interested in the chance to take Gnabry under their wing for a term.
That lone substitute appearance for at The Hawthorns proved to be the last action of an entirely fruitless year as he returned to London yet didn’t play another minute of club football all season. With Giroud scoring well, Alexis and Walcott were preferred on the left before Wenger’s newest teenage muse, Alex Iwobi, broke through to briefly claim the No.11 jersey.
Despite this enforced club hibernation, Gnabry continued to impress in the German youth teams he represented from U16 through to U23. This summer gave the biggest hint of his development when he top scored at the Olympics with 6 in as many games as Germany picked up a silver medal, breaking with national tradition to lose the final to Neymar’s Brazil on penalties.
Wenger was understandably keen to keep Gnabry but, in the eyes of the German, Le Prof’s actions spoke louder than his words. Wenger’s (for now, seemingly misplaced) faith in Alex Iwobi was clear whilst the signing of Lucas Peréz proved the final straw. Gnabry saw nothing but the bench ahead of him and left for Germany within days of the Spaniard signing.
Hindsight is a marvellous thing but these two decisions – backing Iwobi over the summer and spending big on another striker – both seem poorly judged.
Look at the Peréz deal in terms of pure numbers. Wenger spent over £17m on an uncapped forward who will be 29 years old in September, a move that pushed a hugely promising 21-year-old out the door for relative pennies.
Peréz may well go on to become a success at Arsenal, but it’s also worth noting his 17 league goals for Deportivo last term was the only time in his career he’s hit double figures, despite several years spent in relatively poor leagues such as the Ukrainian top flight (currently 8th strongest according to UEFA’s co-efficient system) and the Greek Superleague (14th).
In light of Gnabry’s 11 Bundesliga strikes this year (incidentally already more than Danny Welbeck’s ever managed in a top-flight campaign), combined with Peréz’s inability to get a game, it’s a dreadful bit of business.
Throw in the fact that Arsenal paid almost 4 times the amount they reaped for Gnabry (just £4.3m, seemingly without any buy back clause) for a forward 7 years older and with arguably just as unproven a track record – and you fear the club may well have their own Paul Pogba situation on their hands. Foolish as it seems now, at least Man United’s decision to recall Paul Scholes, rather than promote Pogba, delivered them one last Premier League in 2012. Unless Peréz bags the goals that secure Champions League football against the odds and a hat-trick in the FA Cup final, the same cannot be said for him.
Secondly, we have the issue of Iwobi. Hugely gifted and clearly the apple of Wenger’s eye, the Nigerian star was backed time and time again this season despite a string of indifferent performances. The managerial trick failed, rather than lift the winger from his slump, the repeated poor showings have knocked the confidence from his sails. 66 torrid minutes in the 5-1 thrashing to Bayern Munich look to have been particularly damaging and Iwobi’s not started a game for over 2 months.
Again, a direct comparison of the two players and their top-flight outputs don’t make pretty reading for Wenger. Both men have operated on the left of midfield this year with Iwobi bagging three goals, three assists to Gnabry’s 11 strikes, 1 assist. Across the board, the German is outperforming his peer, logging more chances created (1.2 to 1), dribbles completed (1.7 to 1.1) and fouls won (1.1 to 0.5) per game. This pattern is even reflected in defence, the one area Iwobi was meant to hold the edge – the Arsenal man averages 0.8 tackles and 0.3 interceptions per game, numbers bettered by Gnabry’s tallies of 1.2 and 1.1 respectively, whilst they both log the same amount of clearances.
Obviously, stats only paint half a picture of the sport’s many nuances but it’s hard to ignore the fact the clear fact Gnabry's potential beginning to be realised to the extent that Germany’s top two – Bayern and RB Leipzig – are voicing their interest.
The great irony is that during Arsenal’s years of financial prudence, following their move to the Emirates, Gnabry would have almost certainly made it at as a first-team regular at the club. Instead, free from the previous constraints, Wenger has spent a fairly remarkable sum on an ageing benchwarmer whilst his chosen prodigy treads water.
Rob Holding’s recent emergence and the excellent season enjoyed by Calum Chambers at Middlesbrough show the Frenchman’s eye for young talent is not completely failing him. Despite this, it’s hard to argue the decisions that led to Gnabry’s premature exit don't look like a string of costly errors of judgment.
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Cover image - PA
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