The one that got away?
Last summer’s Olympics in Rio saw a spectacular breakout for the footballer who used to be known as our promising youngster Serge Gnabry. Despite starting on the bench for the young Germany side, he rapidly hit a rich vein of goalscoring form and finished with six goals, a silver medal and the general accolade of player of the tournament.
It had been quite some time since he’d competed for the Arsenal first team in any context worth mentioning – in fact a good two and a half years since a promising few months between September 2013 and February 2014, during which the 18-year-old (!) had impressed on numerous occasions, from a last-minute inclusion after an injury to Theo Walcott against Stoke, to an impressive performance, including winning a penalty, at Crystal Palace, a cool finish to secure us a crucial lead at Swansea (making him the club’s second-youngest scorer ever) and a sparkling display to help us eliminate our North London rivals from the FA Cup in the new year.
So as long as it had been since Gnabry had featured meaningfully for us, I for one was looking forward to welcoming back our revitalized sharpshooter. Squad improvements notwithstanding, it seemed to me that a player in his Olympic form should have been not only an exciting bench and cup option, but absolutely challenging week-in week-out for a place in the first team – the more so when his competitors for a wide attacking position on the side not occupied by Alexis Sánchez were called Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, who had endured yet another problematic season apiece and were rapidly becoming reflexive boo-boys for a fanbase that seemed more restive than ever. The loan moves of Jack Wilshere to Bournemouth and, especially, Joel Campbell to Sporting seemed to suggest that Arsène Wenger fully intended to make room for him in the squad.
Nevertheless – we know the rest. An odd-sounding story on the Monday of transfer deadline week about Gnabry going on loan to Werder Bremen, with a view to a permanent transfer to Bayern, proved to be dubious nonsense only in so far as the official Munich connection was concerned: a permanent transfer to the Hanseatic club it was. The fee, as ever, undisclosed – but rumoured to be, for a player of his potential, peanuts; five to six million euros, perhaps.
All sorts of thoughts went through my head at this stage, many of them far from charitable. Werder were getting an excellent prospect whom under normal circumstances they could ill afford, sure; a potential future star for the Nationalmannschaft was going to get the chance to play every week in his home league, with every chance of rapid promotion if he performed well – no doubt. But why had it come to this, and so quickly? The guy hadn’t even been fit and injury-free enough to make a comeback performance for us; indeed the club, and our manager, had stood by him and paid his wages through the intervening 2½ years, during the vast majority of which he’d struggled with injuries and, even, if Tony Pulis was to be believed (yeah, I know…), an unprofessional attitude to diet and fitness during his ill-starred loan spell at West Brom. And now, the moment he proved to be not only fit but emphatically firing again, he was off, not just on loan to guarantee him game time, but permanently? Seriously?
At this stage, we can only speculate. What might seem to us like an outstanding opportunity to assert himself in the first team at Arsenal – and I have no doubt that Arsène will have impressed on Serge that he saw him as a key part of his plans, as long as the player was happy to compete for his place; after all, Wenger made clear to the press that he wished to extend Gnabry’s contract – might have failed to convince a talented young man in a hurry who for all the manager’s encouraging words may have feared an immediate future of League Cup starts and bench occupancy. Perhaps his head was turned by an acquisitive agent? As much as it might seem odd to swap a bright future at the Arsenal to be a big fish in the now sadly rather small pond of Bremen, it is hard to second-guess a player’s motivations, even – or especially – when they seem to change at the last minute. And we know what Arsène is like – he does not stand in a player’s way when he flatly refuses to sign a contract; it is invariably carrot over stick, persuasion rather than intransigence. If this was the attitude with Fàbregas, Nasri and van Persie, how could we honestly have expected things to be different in this case?
So how has Gnabry’s bright new career in the homeland been going so far? Well, Bremen are not the team they were, and every season seems to bring a new relegation battle. So success was presumably not the governing criterion for our Serge in any event: but four straight defeats and fourteen goals conceded, as well as the traditional first-round cup exit to lower-league opposition, were hardly the hoped-for start either. In the circumstances, then, a screamer consolation at 4-0 down to Gladbach was an impressive way to open his account (as well as a poignant reminder that Xhaka and Alexis were not necessarily the only ones in our ranks capable of such feats); while as Arsenal were dismantling Chelsea, Gnabry was proving to be the outstanding attacking player in a comeback victory against Wolfsburg that must have been as unexpected as it was welcome. At the time of writing, he has gone on to crown another sparkling display with another beautiful goal, using his pace to take the ball round the keeper before exquisitely finishing from a tight angle against Darmstadt – and was the team’s sole scorer in the latest defeat against league high-fliers Leipzig.
The latter performance prompted the opposition manager to muse how long, if he continued to play like that, Gnabry would still be playing in the Bundesliga. An ironic if not ignorant remark, given where he’s just come from – but a telling one, as regards the guy’s future. There’s a temptation to say ‘we’re the Arsenal; if he wants to leave, screw him; he hardly did anything for us anyway’. It depends, I suppose, how reflective you want to be: this is a player still barely 21, whose true role and style of play (winger? playmaker? false striker? goalscorer?) are still not clear, but who has walked into a club that until seven or eight years ago was the closest German challenger to the Bavarian hegemony, a consistent purveyor of entertaining attacking (if defensively shambolic) football, and instantly proved to be its outstanding player. Our loss is plainly Werder’s gain, for now; and there’s no report of a buy-back clause. If, despite the official story, Bayern are keeping a close eye on proceedings, ready to swoop if time and talent are right, then another five million in the bank later on will be scant consolation.
Should we – or our manager – have been less soft in this instance? Should the player himself have shown more patience? It’s rather early to judge, of course. The case of Alex Iwobi (not to mention the current form of a transformed Walcott) shows, perhaps, not only that ‘we don’t need him now anyway’, but that players of exceptional quality will get their chance, however young. Let’s be philosophical about the whole matter, by all means; but if Serge does indeed prove to be one of the next big things in German, not to say world football and we have given him away for the cost of a seventh of a Mustafi, then some of us will have reason to feel a little cheesed off. Grrr. Dumm gelaufen, as they say over there.