When Arsenal face West Brom this weekend, the terms of Serge Gnabry’s loan agreement with the Baggies will render him unavailable. It makes no odds, really: even if he were permitted to start, Tony Pulis would have no intention of using him. Despite being in held in high regard at Arsenal, Gnabry is struggling to make his presence felt in the Midlands.
It’s a disappointing turn of events for a player once heralded by Arsene Wenger as Arsenal’s “great hope for the future” back in September 2012. After making his senior debut that month, Gnabry really began to have an impact on the first-team during the 2013/14 season. A series of injuries in the wide positions saw him promoted to the senior set-up, and he responded with some startlingly mature displays.
In September of 2013, a year after his first-team bow, he became the second youngest goalscorer in Arsenal’s Premier League history with an assured finish against Swansea. When he followed up with a dazzling display in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Tottenham in the FA Cup tie of January 2014, the hype built. He retained his place in the first XI for the next three Premier League games, holding off the challenge of the far more experienced Lukas Podolski. There was even talk he could earn a late call up to join Podolski in Germany’s World Cup squad. It seems bizarre to think of it now, but Gnabry might have been a World Cup winner. Instead, he can barely manage a kick for West Brom.
Of course, injury has been the major factor in his stagnation. In March of 2014, a knee injury ended his season abruptly. He was initially expected to be back in time for the start of the 2014/15 season, but after a slew of set-backs he ended up missing the entire campaign. In his absence, Arsenal recruited the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck to fill the wide attacking roles. Gnabry tumbled down the pecking order and became something of a forgotten man.
The move to West Brom ought to have been an ideal opportunity for the German to re-assert his credentials. However, thus far he has made just one Premier League appearance, totalling 13 minutes. Pulis has pulled no punches in his assessment of the player, telling local midlands paper The Express and Star:
“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? And we’re talking about Premier League football here. As a manager you pick a team that’s going to win a game of football. You pick your best team, you don’t leave people out because you don’t like them, because of this, that and the other.”
Pulis’ damning assessment makes his decision to sign Gnabry in the first place somewhat confusing. Gnabry did not look out of place in league football when he was with Arsenal. Furthermore, if his biggest problem is that he lacks experience, freezing him out is going to do little to assuage that issue.
Having seen so little of him in action, it’s difficult to assess the impact Gnabry’s knee problems may have had on his ability to influence games. He is still involved in the German U-21 set-up, so it’s clear his talent has not deserted him entirely.
Arsene Wenger was asked recently whether he had considered recalling Gnabry from loan to help deal with Arsenal’s latest injury crisis. As well as explaining that the terms of Gnabry’s deal prevent such a move, he also threw down the gauntlet to his young star: he must seize the challenge of convincing Pulis of his worth. Perhaps Wenger feels some tough love could benefit the precocious playmaker.
Currently, Gnabry’s time with West Brom feels worryingly like another season wasted. However, there’s little doubt that if Gnabry can overcome his current coaches scepticism, he will return to Arsenal a stronger man and player.