Please explain any gaps in your employment history.
It’s an awkward question for Serge Gnabry, for whom those gaps relate to the 2015-16 season, when he was on loan from Arsenal at West Bromwich Albion.
He made his debut that August at home against Chelsea, three games into the season and a month after turning 20, coming on for 12 minutes at the end of a 3-2 Premier League defeat. All the goals had already been scored by the time he got on.
He then played in the League Cup twice: in the first tie, a couple of days after that Chelsea game, he was taken off after 57 minutes. In the second, in mid-September, he was taken off after 68 minutes.
For the next four months, he was on the bench or out of the matchday squad altogether. That January, having made only those three appearances (plus three starts for West Brom’s under-21s), Arsenal recalled him early from what was supposed to be a full season with Albion.
That sort of blip on your CV can be a catastrophe for some careers. But not Gnabry’s.
The following summer, Arsenal sold him to Werder Bremen of Germany’s Bundesliga, for whom he made 27 league appearances in 2016-17, scoring 11 goals and providing two assists — form that earned him a move to a little outfit called Bayern Munich.
After a year back out on loan at Hoffenheim, in 137 league matches for Bayern over the past four and a half seasons, Gnabry has scored 54 goals, while winning the Bundesliga four times, the German double twice and the 2019-20 Champions League final.
Another line for his CV is that he is a regular in the German national team, where his goalscoring record is arguably even more impressive — 20 goals from 38 caps, including starting both matches so far at this World Cup.
At 27, Gnabry is one of the best wingers in the world.
West Bromwich Albion during that same period have been less impressive: relegation from the Premier League, promotion back to it, relegated again, and spending this autumn either in or just outside the bottom three of the Championship.
That disparity between the club and player makes his time at The Hawthorns an intriguing tale, and it certainly isn’t a love story.
It starts with Gnabry being born in the German city of Stuttgart. He joined local club Stuttgart, then moved to the youth system at Arsenal aged 16 and, in September 2013, scored a Premier League goal for the London side against Swansea City shortly after turning 18.
However, appearances for one of English football’s elite clubs were few and far between for the youngster, so in August 2015 he was sent on loan to West Brom, who were then in the Premier League and being managed by Tony Pulis. One of Gnabry’s new team-mates recognised him.
“In my first season at West Brom, we had Arsenal in the cup and he played in that game,” former Albion striker Saido Berahino tells The Athletic. “Steven Reid was playing, Shane Long was playing — so we had a decent team out. You could see his ability there and I remember taking note of him then.
“Then he turned up at West Brom, and I thought, ‘Wow!’. I thought it was a good signing at the time. Straight away you could see in training that Serge had quality; you could tell he was a quality player out the gate. He had a good shot and he could use both feet.”
While the quality was evident, people in the club were concerned about his fitness levels, having missed almost all of the previous season following a knee injury. Some also felt he arrived in the West Midlands slightly overweight. For Berahino, Gnabry’s struggles to get up to speed were an early warning sign.
“If a manager plays a certain way — and this is the same for most managers — if you don’t fit into that system, it just won’t work,” says Berahino. “I think that’s what happened with Alex Pritchard (who joined on loan from Tottenham Hotspur later in that 2015-16 season) and Serge. If you’re not hitting 12 kilometres a game and you’re not running up and down the pitch, then it will be tough for you.”
Following his short cameo in that loss to Chelsea in late August, senior figures at the club diagnosed a lack of tactical awareness and inability to track runners in the young German. With Pulis prioritising defensive responsibilities, it became apparent Gnabry may not make the starting XI.
“In terms of his quality on the ball, you could see it on the training pitch. But maybe we played in a way that didn’t suit him, which made it a bad match from the start,” then-Albion defender Jonas Olsson tells The Athletic.
“For West Brom to have the opportunity to have a quality player like that — of course we’d take him. But from Arsenal and his agent, it was maybe not the best advice to send a player with that technical quality to a team with West Brom’s style of play.”
By all accounts, other than a habit of occasionally arriving to training late from his Birmingham home, Gnabry had an exemplary attitude. While players from bigger clubs can arrive on loan at one of the game’s lesser sides with an ego, he was dedicated and ambitious.
“He worked hard and he was intelligent. He had everything around him to succeed. It was just an issue of playing the wrong style of football for him,” Olsson says.
“You can never be sure if someone will make it to the top, but I played with (2012-13 season Chelsea loanee Romelu) Lukaku at West Brom and Reece James with Wigan (also borrowed from Stamford Bridge in 2018-19), and those three, including Serge, were special.
“They were eager and ambitious and would not kick up a fuss if things didn’t go their way or they were not playing; they’re all very similar. That, combined with their tremendous ability, is clearly what is needed to go all the way.”
James McClean, a fellow newcomer having been bought from Wigan Athletic that summer, proved to be a Pulis favourite, with Chris Brunt and Stephane Sessegnon also thriving in a side who would finish 14th in the 20-club Premier League.
There was no great appetite from the stands, either, to see an unproven, inexperienced loanee unseating tried and tested top-flight veterans.
That October, Pulis explained to the local newspaper, the Express & 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.”
His time at West Brom had soured. Gnabry was on the fringes with little opportunity to impress the manager, but his father, Jean-Hermann, kept encouraging him.
“He was one of many players at that time that you could sense was not very happy — when you’re not playing, it’s natural,” says Berahino. “It didn’t matter who we were playing, you knew Pulis wouldn’t rotate the squad.
“His dad was around the training ground a lot and even though he wasn’t playing, his dad was there to support him. You could see he had a great support system around him. He wasn’t around much outside of football but always with his family at the training ground. Without that support system, he may have really struggled at the time.”
In the middle of January, what was meant to be a season-long loan was terminated and Gnabry returned to Arsenal without much fanfare.
He did not feature for his parent club’s first team for the rest of that season but impressed at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in the summer, scoring six goals in as many games as Germany got to the final but lost on penalties to hosts Brazil.
Arsenal wanted to tie him down to a new contract, but he returned from the Olympics to offers from around Europe.
He agreed to leave London for Werder Bremen, a move that set him on the path to becoming one of the world’s best players.
Now, he has a four-year contract with Bayern signed this summer and is playing for Germany at Qatar 2022, while Albion are spending this World Cup break fourth-bottom in the Championship, only out of the relegation places on goal difference.
Though in hindsight it seems like a missed opportunity for West Brom, the truth is that for players to achieve their potential at any club, a lot has to go right.
“Everything has to play for you. It only takes one wrong move and one wrong environment for it not to happen,” says Berahino, who is now at AEL Limassol in Cyprus — the ninth club of his 12-year senior career.
“I was in the England setup. I’ve trained and played with the best guys across each age group in the country, so I could always tell when a player was very talented. He (Gnabry) was up there. Very good technically, but he probably didn’t have the other side of the game at that point.
“The improvement at Bayern made me sit up. You could see the talent from the start, but so many factors have to come into play for you to reach that level. Fair play to him, because he did it.”
(Top photo: Stuart Franklin via Getty Images)
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