The resurgence of Serge Gnabry from Premier League failure to Bundesliga giant

The resurgence of Serge Gnabry from Premier League failure to Bundesliga giant

Following Bayern Munich’s emphatic 7-2 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in October 2019, most of the attention was focused around one man: Serge Gnabry. The fiery German attacker had netted four times in that glorious evening, but for him, the night was even more significant. His short career thus far had come full circle. Having started on the other side of north London. at Arsenal, he now announced himself on the world stage once again.

The aftermath of the match was all about him. A simple scroll through social media that evening included posts about Tony Pulis’ misjudgement of Gnabry’s talent, his rise since returning to Germany, and, of course, the player himself attracting the most attention with a simple Tweet about north London being red; except this time, it was Bayern’s red. 

The papers covered a similar angle the next morning and it was clear that Gnabry, now 24 – a full German international, a key figure in the Bayern revolution, and a mature footballer three years after permanently leaving Arsenal – was one to keep an eye on. For Gnabry, the story began years prior, however. That night in north London was the pinnacle of one cycle; the previous ones were far more strenuous. 

His story begins in Stuttgart, where his talent was widely recognised. At a club known for its consistency in giving young players a platform, it seemed right they would give him an opportunity. From a young age, sport was embedded in Gnabry. It’s unsurprising that he was incredibly good at athletics – even going as far as saying he never lost a race as a child – but it was football, a sport his father also played, which he chose.

His father, Jean-Hermann, who is of Ivorian descent, took an active interest in his son’s career, going from amateur sides like TSV Ditzingen, GSV Hemmingen, SpvGG Feuerbach and Stuttgart Kickers to VfB Stuttgart. Such was his talent and impressive potential that Peter Clark, a scout for Arsenal, decided to bring him to England – with Gnabry claiming he was told by Clark that it took ten minutes for him to make the decision. 

He had to wait a year to comply with FIFA regulations, but when the move happened, it didn’t quite go as planned. Five years – four in the senior team – one long-term injury, one loan spell consisting of 12 minutes of Premier League football, and a scathing review by Pulis led many to question his talent. Speaking about Gnabry, the Pulis said: “Serge has come here to play games but he just hasn’t been for me, at the moment, at that level to play the games. He’s come from academy football and not played much league football. Does academy football really prepare players for league football? We’re talking about Premier League football here.”

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In retrospect, perhaps Pulis was right. Prior to the loan move, Gnabry was Arsenal’s second-youngest debutant but only acquired 18 appearances for the club and endured a season marred by a knee injury. Maybe going to a club like West Brom, who at the time employed an all-defensive, hard-hitting style, wasn’t right for him. Following his return to Arsenal, the start of the resurgence began – not in London, but in Rio de Janeiro. 

Gnabry was a late inclusion in Horst Hrubesch’s side that was to fly out for the Olympics in 2016, but while there, he took the chance with both hands. He finished the tournament as the top scorer, netting six goals. Three of them were strikingly similar: runs from the left followed by a neat finish. Gnabry found the net against South Korea, Fiji, Mexico and Portugal, but in the end could only claim the silver medal as hosts Brazil, inspired by Neymar, took gold in a penalty shootout win. 

Nonetheless, this was the break Gnabry needed to remind everyone of his talent and just why Arsenal brought him in four years prior. His teammate at the Gunners, Mesut Özil, took to Instagram to praise the youngster’s performances, while Hrubesch was critical of the club for not giving him much of a chance: “He’s shown everybody what he can do.  I’m just annoyed he’s never shown enough faith by his club. You can see what an important player he can be and the kind of level he can play at. Now hopefully he can get in the team and get opportunities to play.”

It’s easy to forget that Gnabry was still just 21. Having been so highly rated since his Stuttgart days, it seemed as though he had been around forever, but this was a turning point in the German’s career. In order to move forward, he had to step away from the prestige of Arsenal. His next move was to Werder Bremen, with Gnabry refusing a contract offer from the London club to make a €5m move to the Bundesliga. 

It was his past and his future that would have a hand in his selection of Werder Bremen. His teammates at Arsenal, Özil and Per Mertesacker, were positive that this was the right club for him to grow having played there earlier in their careers. There were also strong suggestions that Bayern Munich were keen on acquiring his signature, thus getting involved in the deal themselves. Some outlets reported that the Bavarians had paid the fee themselves, while others said there was a clause in his contract that allowed him to move to the Allianz Arena. 

In Bremen, Gnabry was given the chance to flourish and add to his improving reputation. He joined the club at a time where they were looking to return to the European scene after a few seasons of inconsistency, and added some solid talent to get there. The likes of Max Kruse, Florian Kainz and Izet Hajrović propelled Werder team to the top half of the Bundesliga, and Gnabry was fortunate to get so much game time. 

Kainz was supposed to be the first-choice man on the left, but injury concerns gave Gnabry a chance to shine. He made a quick start, and by the midway point in the season already bagged ten goals in all competitions. Along the way, he also received his first call-up for the national team – reportedly advocated for by Özil and Mertesacker – and his debut couldn’t have been better. A hat-trick in an 8-0 thrashing of San Marino was vindication for the player, who felt he now had the platform to show his best form. 

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Injury problems struck Gnabry at Werder, too, however. After the winter break, the winger would have trouble with his knee and missed much of the final third of the campaign. He had done enough to win people over, though, and ended the campaign with a solid total of 11 goals in 27 appearances across all competitions. The changing of managers from Viktor Skryunyk to Alexander Nouri was also important, as the latter’s attacking style encouraged players with as much flair as Gnabry. 

Speaking about his transfer, Gnabry knew it was right for him to leave Arsenal and return home: “The move was more from my side. The most important point was that I would get playing time here, instead of staying another year in the shadows or starting from behind, because there are so many people in front of you at Arsenal. I just said, ‘I need to be somewhere I can play regularly now, and maybe in one or two years things will be different again – once I get my confidence back, once I am in physical shape.’”

He was right, and it was another indication that leaving the Premier League after an unsuccessful stint does not spell a downward spiral for a player. Iago Aspas is a prime example of this. Much of his time with Liverpool is remembered for a failed corner-kick, but his revival at hometown club Celta Vigo has been commendable. Florian Thauvin is another case. The Frenchman is often branded a “Newcastle flop” when playing on the international scene, but his rebirth at Marseille has seen him earn a World Cup winners medal. 

Even though these names may not garner the same fame, attention or money as their Premier League counterparts, if it works for them, their clubs and their careers, it’s a worthwhile decision to leave England’s top-flight. Gnabry’s form was so impressive that he moved to the crème de la crème in German football, Bayern Munich, sparking further rumours that they were initially involved in the deal to take him to Bremen in the first place. However, his journey to Säbener Straße had one final stopover at Hoffenheim. 

A loan move to Sinsheim was a match made in heaven. Coaching the side was Julian Nagelsmann, the innovative young manager who was making use of modern coaching methods and technology to overachieve with his team. What struck most from this deal was that Nagelsmann, eight years Gnabry’s senior, was often regarded as a ‘Menschenfänger’ – a coach with extraordinary human qualities who can inspire players to reach the next level. 

This was a club that had European football and was undergoing a transition. Over the course of the season, their impressive form attracted many clubs and they had their best talent taken from them. Niklas Süle, Sebastian Rudy and Sandro Wagner were off to Bayern Munich, while Jeremy Toljan went to Borussia Dortmund. Still, the coach’s talents stood out, and that allowed his players’ talents to shine. 

The season started with a playoff defeat in the Champions League against eventual finalists Liverpool, but their season wasn’t to be deterred. In an enticing 3-1-4-2 set-up, Gnabry was part of a midfield that was crucial at both ends of the pitch. Whilst also helping out in defence, their main role was to push wide and exploit opposition defences with their full-backs or forwards. With a player as pacey as Gnabry, it was a perfect fit and the additional space created for him by his teammates’ shrewd movement gave him room to weave his magic. 

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The results were clear: there were some excellent performances from the young German. In a game against title-chasing RB Leipzig, he netted twice, including a stunning strike from 40 yards out. Then, in a 6-0 thrashing of Köln, he scored another brace, which included two wonderful solo goals. Perhaps real beauty is in simplicity, and in a match against Augsburg, Nagelsmann and Gnabry showed exactly what they were all about. 

The manager and his team were known for their swift counter-attacks, and there was no better player than Gnabry to carry out the orders. In the match against the Bavarians, he received the ball from a clearance in his own half and, with a sweet touch and turn, got the best of two players and left a team behind him trailing. Surging forward, he played a quick give-and-go with Andrej Kramarić before slotting home with ease. 

Both player and manager were great for each other, and Gnabry is full of praise for the boss: “Julian Nagelsmann fascinated me. Before that, the season before I had played against Hoffenheim and in the second half of the season …well, we took a real hiding, but their style of play appealed to me, it was so attacking.”

Perhaps what interested Nagelsmann the most was Gnabry’s willingness to cover in several positions. While midfield was his primary role, he didn’t mind covering at wing-back, forward or an out-and-out winger, and that made him an invaluable asset in this impressive team.

Hoffenheim finished third – their best placing in the Bundesliga – qualifying for the Champions League group stage proper for the first time in their history and scoring 66 goals that season, second only to champions Bayern Munich. Gnabry was involved in 18 goals across all competitions – ten goals and eight assists – and he went to Munich in the best form of his career. 

By the time he got to make his bow at the Allianz Arena, he had already played for four clubs in two countries. The timing of his Bayern Munich stint was perfect: he was now a mature player ready to take on Europe’s elite, and two years after having left England, he established himself as one of the most exciting talents in Germany. 

Bayern were undergoing a transitionary spell. Under new manager Niko Kovač and a changing squad that had the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry in the final phases of their careers, there was a chance for Gnabry to make a name for himself and demonstrate that he should be the first choice out on the wings for the long-term. 

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In a wholly different experience, Kovač made the best use of the player’s talents. It was well-known that Gnabry was a rapid footballer with exquisite dribbling skills and two-footedness that was of great benefit. Throughout the season, these qualities were of use. Oftentimes, he would drop deep himself to initiate play, carving through the opposition defence and creating goalscoring chances, either for himself or his teammates. 

Gnabry was a footballer whose stock was constantly on the rise – even Joachim Löw recognised that he was the future. The Bayern star shone on the international scene, too. His performance against the Netherlands in a Euro 2020 qualifier in March 2019 drew rave reviews, as he scored the second on the way to a 3-2 win. 

Not long after, he enjoyed another starring moment, this time in Der Klassiker against Borussia Dortmund. With the title on the line and Bayern having got off to a fast start, he scored his side’s fourth goal in the 43rd minute, before setting up the fifth towards the end of the game for Robert Lewandowski to finish. He ended the season with 13 goals and nine assists in all competitions, winning the Bundesliga as well as the DFB-Pokal. On a more personal note, he added the club’s Player of the Season gong. 

Deployed on either wing, his quick cuts inside were like former teammate Robben, who had made a career out of perfecting that trait. His former manager at Werder Bremen, Nouri, recognised the changes over time and could only heap praise: “He is lightning quick, a clinical finisher, but he puts a lot of work now in his defence – that was something he was missing before. Now he’s taking these deep runs back to his own box defending. He’s capable of doing this work while on the other hand making deep runs for the offence. Before he wasn’t able to do it because of a lack of strength physically. After a long period with no injuries, he could build up that strength – now he is a complete player.”

After Robben and Ribéry’s departures, Gnabry was to take centre-stage. The performance against Tottenham was the culmination of a cycle, as he went from being underappreciated in England to an exciting talent in Germany. He went back to north London with anticipation and became a hero. Following the win, he returned to his hotel to meet Clark, the man who took him to Arsenal.

Gnabry’s time to shine is now in Germany. The Bavarians haven’t won the Champions League in seven years and they have to contend with another trip to London, this time against Chelsea, to progress in this season’s competition. On the international scene, Gnabry will be looking to make a mark at Euros 2020, hoping to put behind the humiliation his nation suffered at the World Cup in 2018 and bring home the Henri Delaunay trophy for the first time since 1996.

This is now the second phase in his career, the path where he aims to become a world-class superstar. His story tells the importance of giving chances to young players, not writing them off after a bad spell, and the efforts needed to make it at the highest level. If Serge Gnabry’s career thus far has been good and he’s able to better it in the coming years, he is sure to go down as one of the best German talents of his era.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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