Gnabry resur­gence proves the power of sec­ond chances

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer

When­ever Tony Pulis is a trend­ing topic, you can be sure that Serge Gnabry is the rea­son. So it proved again this week, when Gnabry’s two goals for Bay­ern Mu­nich in a Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal set into sharp re­lief the de­ci­sion by Pulis, while in charge of West Bromwich Albion in 2015, to give the Ger­man just 12 min­utes of game-time in five months. One ap­pear­ance, as a sub­sti­tute for Cal­lum Mc­Mana­man, in a home de­feat by Chelsea: this was all that an un­abashed track­suit man­ager thought his young winger was worth.

“Serge just hasn’t been, for me, at that level to play the games,” Pulis de­clared, so di­dac­tic in his judg­ment that he wrapped up one West Brom press con­fer­ence in 31 se­conds, while stand­ing up. At the time, it was tempt­ing to de­fer to his ex­per­tise, to be­lieve that Gnabry’s back­ground in the Ar­se­nal academy ren­dered him too del­i­cate for the prover­bial wet Wed­nes­day night at Stoke.

But in ret­ro­spect, the ques­tion is why any­one both­ered lis­ten­ing. Mc­Mana­man, whose skills Pulis much pre­ferred, was last glimpsed fail­ing to re­new his con­tract at Lu­ton Town. Gnabry, by con­trast, with 23 goals and 14 as­sists this sea­son for Bay­ern, is poised to play in a Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal and com­plete a tre­ble.

Nat­u­rally, it is easy to be wise af­ter the event. A mercurial teenage tal­ent who first made his name as a sprinter was never likely to flour­ish fully un­der Pulis, a man­ager fa­mously fond of play­ing a back five. But the ab­so­lutism with which his abil­i­ties were dis­missed points to a wider prob­lem in the English game of fail­ing to recog­nise what it has un­til it is gone.

Eric Maxim ChoupoMot­ing will face Gnabry for Paris St-Ger­main in Sun­day’s fi­nal, hav­ing high­lighted his worth with a quar­ter-fi­nal win­ner against Ata­lanta. Two years ago, the Cameroon mid­fielder was con­sid­ered ex­cess bag­gage at Stoke, scor­ing only five times in a cam­paign that ended with his team’s rel­e­ga­tion to the Cham­pi­onship.

In fact, mem­bers of Stoke’s ill-starred class of 2018 have fea­tured in the last four of the Cham­pi­ons League in all but a hand­ful of the past 17 sea­sons. Choupo-Mot­ing made sure of main­tain­ing that as­ton­ish­ing statis­tic when he ar­rived late on for the crush­ing of RB Leipzig, in place of Kylian Mbappe, no less. One minute he is be­ing de­rided by Stoke fans for his anonymity in a 7-2 loss to Manch­ester City. The next, Ney­mar is hand­ing him a man-of-the-match award in ap­pre­ci­a­tion for PSG reach­ing the semi-fi­nals in Lis­bon. It is a salu­tary re­minder of how a fail­ure in the Premier League can be quite the op­po­site else­where, and of how quick we are to judge. If any­one could max­imise the raw skill in­her­ent in Gnabry, it was surely Arsene Wenger. Un­der the French­man’s watch, Ar­se­nal scout Peter Clark snaf­fled him from VfB Stuttgart when he was 15. In 2012, Wenger of­fered this ful­some trib­ute to his po­ten­tial: “Serge is a great hope for the fu­ture. I rate him highly. He is in the cat­e­gory of Alex Oxlade-Cham­ber­lain and Theo Wal­cott.” More re­cently, the ques­tions for Wenger, now a pun­dit for Qatar’s beIN Sports, have grown in­creas­ingly un­com­fort­able. The more daz­zling Gnabry’s flour­ishes in the Cham­pi­ons League, whether in the four goals to sink Tot­ten­ham last Oc­to­ber or the world-class fin­ish that did for Lyon this week, the more Wenger is pressed on how he let such a prodigy slip through the net.

There are the usual post-hoc ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions: that Gnabry was too of­ten in­jured, that he “lacked a bit”, that his at­ti­tude could be lack­adaisi­cal. How, then, to ex­plain his ex­tra­or­di­nary rein­ven­tion at Bay­ern? How can a player Wenger let go to Werder Bre­men for £5mil­lion in 2016 now be worth a min­i­mum £70mil­lion? For years, the re­frain among the man­ager’s apol­o­gists was “Arsene knows”. All those teenage line-ups he would field for third-round League Cup games were sup­posed to of­fer proof of the foundation­s he was build­ing for Ar­se­nal’s fu­ture. Alas, Wed­nes­day night’s semi-fi­nal, with Gnabry un­stop­pable for Bay­ern and fel­low Ar­se­nal alum­nus Jeff Reine-Ade­laide a sub­sti­tute for Lyon, served up ev­i­dence of how rapidly that pro­ject has col­lapsed.

Wenger is adamant that he never wanted Gnabry to leave. But it is galling for him to wit­ness how dra­mat­i­cally the 25-year-old has bloomed since re­turn­ing to his home coun­try. Gnabry, for his part, has claimed that his de­ci­sion to for­sake the Premier League was the best move he could have made. For it is in the league’s im­pa­tient en­vi­ron­ment, where grass-is-greener man­agers are forever tempted into think­ing that fresh sign­ings are su­pe­rior to those they al­ready pos­sess, where fail­ings are too eas­ily deemed ter­mi­nal.

Take Joe Hart, a fig­ure of mock­ery since his er­rors against Ice­land at Euro 2016 trig­gered a pre­cip­i­tate de­cline. So far did his stock fall, he was forced into a for­get­table spell at Torino, marked as dam­aged goods with­out the op­por­tu­nity to ap­peal.

Tot­ten­ham, at least, have had the de­cency to take a longer-term view, re­mem­ber­ing the goal­keeper once de­scribed as “phe­nom­e­nal” by Lionel Messi. In hand­ing Hart a two-year con­tract af­ter the ex­piry of his Burn­ley deal, the club have sent a mes­sage that there can still be sec­ond acts in Premier League lives.

Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is pos­si­ble for man­agers, too, with Ron­ald Koe­man this week tak­ing over at Barcelona less than three years af­ter be­ing sacked by Ever­ton. At Good­i­son Park, his was a team ac­cused of hav­ing no style and no hope. In foot­ball, such verdicts are as daft as they are ephemeral.

The next time you hear some­body chan­nel their in­ner Tony Pulis by sug­gest­ing that a Cham­pi­ons League win­ner-in­wait­ing is not good enough for West Brom, treat it with the dis­dain it de­serves.

It is a salu­tary re­minder of how a fail­ure in the Premier League can be the op­po­site else­where

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