Gnabry resurgence proves the power of second chances
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