Serge Gnabry’s breakthrough Bundesliga season

Serge Gnabry isn’t short of confidence right now. Both on the pitch for Werder Bremen and talking to him after their 4-3 defeat to Köln last weekend, there was a certain conviction to the way Gnabry played and spoke, particularly when it was regarding his former club Arsenal.

The Gunners still mean a lot to him, as could be seen by his return to London a fortnight ago. Gnabry watched the victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, and also enjoyed a lunch date with compatriot and club captain Per Mertesacker.

Gnabry only wants the best for Arsenal and, in his opinion, that means Arsene Wenger staying on as manager. When asked by The Set Pieces if Wenger should remain in charge, Gnabry didn’t hesitate: “Yeah, of course. He was the one that gave me a chance. I have deep respect for him and I wish him all the best.”

That tallies with what Gnabry told a Bremen newspaper at the end of April, namely about how Wenger “hugely” shaped him to become the kind of player he is today. “I learned a hell of a lot in the three, four years that I spent with him working with the first team,” he told the Kreis Zeitung. “It’s great to be a forward at Arsenal because you have so much possession.”

Werder Bremen don’t have so much of the ball. They have averaged the fourth least possession in the Bundesliga this season, but that still hasn’t stopped the 21-year-old thriving since he joined from Arsenal last summer. The way Gnabry seemed to carry the team at times earlier in the season was reminiscent of Kevin De Bruyne’s impact in Bremen when he enjoyed a successful loan spell at the club four years ago.

It hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride for Bremen this season, though. When they were 16th in February, occupying the relegation play-off spot, no one expected the club to embark on an 11-game unbeaten run with nine wins and two draws lifting them into a European position.

It now seems absurd to think there had been talk of Alexander Nouri, already the club’s second coach of the season, being sacked if the team had suffered a fifth successive Bundesliga defeat away to Mainz. Instead, Gnabry headed in from a corner to spark an eventual 2-0 win and a remarkable upturn in form.

That was one of three goals from Gnabry in the first three matches of Bremen’s revival, before injury forced him to watch the bulk of the team’s unbeaten run from the touchline. Even once he was fit again in April, Gnabry was had to wait for his opportunity such was the form of his teammates.

That surely won’t be the case for the final two games of the season, however, after he shone when brought off the bench against Köln last weekend. With Bremen trailing 4-2, it didn’t take long before his pace and directness started causing problems. Just eight minutes after coming off the bench, Gnabry speedily stole in at the back post to pull one back, but couldn’t save his side from a 4-3 defeat.

With scouts from Arsenal and West Brom watching, the two clubs Gnabry briefly turned out for in England, it was a timely intervention. His late strike took his tally to 11 for the season but it was by no means his best for Bremen. That was undoubtedly his first, an outrageous volley in September away at Borussia Mönchengladbach, ranked recently as the 15th best Bundesliga goal of all-time by German newspaper BILD.

In the Bundesliga scoring charts for this season Gnabry is now ninth, an impressive achievement for a forward who has been playing out wide for most of the campaign. “Incredible. Sensational. Enormously important to us,” said teammate Finn Bartels of Gnabry’s performances after the defeat to Köln.

I asked Gnabry himself why things are going so well for him in Bremen. “I don’t know my friend. Because I work hard. It’s that simple I think.” Has Nouri helped? “He’s played me. The team’s on a great run. He’s got it under control. So I’m just benefiting.”

The 25 first-team games Gnabry has played for Werder this season is more than he managed in total across his five years in England. His performances are showing Arsenal might well have missed a trick by selling him, but the player remains philosophical. “The past is the past,” said Gnabry.  “I’m healthy. I’m able to play. I’ve got my confidence back up so those are just the results.”

Perhaps there is something to be read into what he told the Kreiz Zeitung too about how moving to Bremen has made it easier to focus on football: “There aren’t so many temptations like in London.”

He might not be in Bremen for very long, though. Speculation has been rife about a possible move to Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund or RB Leipzig. “Gnabry is a very interesting player,” said Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhüttl last week, admitting that he fell into their scouting plan. “He is a very quick player with a good finish and certainly one of the hottest properties in the league.”

Naturally then, The Set Pieces asked Gnabry if he would be happy to stay at Werder next season. There wasn’t much eye contact but his answer was concise: “Yes”.

For Werder Bremen, it’s a case of holding onto him for as long as possible. But seeing as Gnabry has even forced his way into the Germany setup, scoring a hat-trick on his debut back in November (albeit against San Marino), you get the feeling that his stay in Bremen won’t be a long one.

Serge Gnabry’s breakthrough Bundesliga season
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