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Dublin: 8°C Saturday 15 May 2021

From struggling at West Brom to setting the Champions League alight

Serge Gnabry’s brace helped Bayern Munich overcome Lyon in last night’s semi-final.

Serge Gnabry celebrates a goal against Lyon.
Serge Gnabry celebrates a goal against Lyon.
Image: Imago/PA Images

BAYERN MUNICH ARE set for the biggest game of their season when they face PSG in the Champions League final on Sunday, but in many people’s eyes, they already are the best team in Europe.

Their league form alone is remarkable. After 7 December loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach, they proceeded to win 19 of their next 20 games, drawing the other.

In the Champions League, meanwhile, they have a 100% record, with notable results including a 7-2 victory away to Tottenham, a 6-0 win in Red Star Belgrade, a 7-1 aggregate defeat of Chelsea, an 8-2 thrashing of Barcelona and last night’s impressive 3-0 win over Lyon.

So why have Bayern succeeded where other big sides have failed?

Their starting XI last night contained plenty experienced campaigners – Jérôme Boateng, Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski, Ivan Perišić and Manuel Neuer are all in their 30s.

Yet perhaps the difference compared with a Barcelona or Man City is that the Bundesliga outfit have been more successful at integrating younger players to complement their established stars.

One example of the newer breed of players who has fitted in seamlessly to the Bayern set-up in recent seasons is Serge Gnabry.

Born in Stuttgart to an Ivorian father and a German mother, his promise was obvious from a relatively early age and it would be inaccurate to suggest Gnabry’s talent only became truly apparent when he joined Bayern.

If that were the case, Arsene Wenger would hardly have given him a Premier League debut at 17 years and 98 days, making him the second youngest player in the club’s history to feature at that level after Jack Wilshere.

While it would be harsh to infer Gnabry lost his way, there was certainly a period when he looked in danger of failing to live up to his immense potential.

Four appearances for Arsenal in the 2012-13 campaign were followed by another 14 the following year. Yet a serious knee injury in 2014-15 curtailed his progress and meant his missed the entirety of the season.

The youngster — still only 20 — tried to get back on track in the 2015-16 campaign when he was loaned by Arsenal to fellow top-flight side West Brom. Yet the stint would prove unsuccessful, as he returned to his parent club with just a single substitute Premier League appearance — replacing Callum McManaman on 78 minutes amid a 3-2 defeat by Chelsea — in addition to two League Cup appearances.

It’s an interesting insight into how the fate of players that initially appear at a similar level can drastically differ when you consider that, while Gnabry’s career has since soared, 29-year-old McManaman has not had such good fortune. He is currently a free agent, having been released recently by Championship strugglers Luton.

Gnabry was recalled prematurely by the Gunners from what was supposed to be a season-long loan in January, having been rendered surplus to requirements at West Brom.

After Gnabry’s astonishing four-goal haul against Tottenham earlier this season, his old Baggies boss Tony Pulis was asked to reflect on his difficult time at West Brom.

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“You could knock me over with a feather,” Pulis told Sky Sports. “I’m amazed. We had him at West Brom, we took him on loan and we could never get him fit.

He even got taken off in an U21 game and he went back to Arsenal and they sold him on.

“He was a nice kid, I didn’t mind him at all and he’s really fulfilled his potential.

“To have him at West Brom and seeing him do what he’s done is absolutely amazing.

“When people show what they can really do and knuckle-down and become so good as he’s done it’s absolutely fantastic.”

After the failed West Brom move, Arsenal agreed to sell Gnabry to Werder Bremen for £5 million — a fraction of what he is now worth, though the fee was substantially diminished owing to the fact that his Gunners contract had just a year remaining. Wenger did want the player to stay and reportedly offered Gnabry a new contract, with the youngster having impressed with six goals in five appearances at the Rio Olympic Games as Germany claimed silver, losing to a Brazilian side that included Neymar on penalties. 

But the 21-year-old was determined to play regular first-team football and knew German football represented a better bet in that regard.

And since moving to the Bundesliga, his rise has been spectacular. Gnabry spent just one season at Werder Bremen, before before being snapped up by Bayern Munich amid a breakout season that saw him score 15 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions, including a hat-trick on his senior Germany debut.

The German giants had managed to activate a clause in his contract that facilitated a three-year deal for a bargain of €8 million.

Yet at a time when big-name stars like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry and James Rodríguez were still considered important to the club, Gnabry wasn’t deemed ready to take their place and was immediately loaned out to 1899 Hoffenheim.

He continued to excel at his temporary new club, with 10 goals in 22 appearances earning him plenty of plaudits and a chance in the Bayern first team the following season.

It was perhaps his first genuine opportunity at an extended first-team run with a top European side and Gnabry didn’t disappoint. He scored 18 goals in 49 appearances in all competitions, as Bayern pipped Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title, but were knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16 by eventual winners Liverpool. 

Despite this European disappointment, Gnabry’s arrival at the highest level had been confirmed, as he was named Bayern’s Player of the Season.

And in this current campaign, both the former Arsenal man and his current club have hit even greater heights. Overall, he already has two Bundesliga titles and two DFB-Pokals to his name (you could also arguably count the 2014 FA Cup — Gnabry made two appearances in the competition but missed the final through injury).

Gnabry this season has 28 goals in 49 appearances. If there were any lingering doubts, a match-defining brace against Lyon on virtually the biggest stage imaginable in modern football — the Champions League semi-final with a global audience watching on — confirmed the 25-year-old’s status as a world-class player and an individual likely to light up the sport for several years to come.  

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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