While there’s no easy route to the top level of professional football, some players are forced to endure a little more ‘character building’ than others.
A brief check of Serge Gnabry’s list of previous employers will hardly leave you teary eyed at what a valiant battle he’s fought on his path to Bayern Munich – having featured for some stellar sides fighting at the top end of their respective leagues, including Arsenal, Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim – though a campaign with West Brom in 2015/16 undoubtedly blotches the résumé.
Tony Pulis would afford the German just twelve minutes of Premier League football during his time at The Hawthorns, before parent club Arsenal opted to exercise their right to recall him in January.
Not to be deterred by the snub from a side who mustered less than a goal-per-game during his spell on their roster, Gnabry took a leap of faith as he embarked on a move back to his homeland with Bremen in August 2016, and just four years on he sits proudly at the apex of the footballing world - a German champion, a European champion, a truly world class player.
While it would be wholly justified were Gnabry to look back at his spell with the Baggies as a wasted opportunity to showcase his talents in the Premier League, the 25-year-old holds no such grudge, and instead sees the ill-fated move as a springboard in his career, as he told the Daily Mail back in August.
"I tried my best at West Brom and it didn't work out. Mentally for me, in that time at West Brom, I said to myself: 'Even though I have zero chance of playing, all I can do is work hard.' That mentality has stayed with me today and helped me to become a Bayern player."- Serge Gnabry
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Since his move to Germany in 2016, Gnabry has notched double figures in every one of his four full Bundesliga campaigns, though it was his move to Die Roten in 2017 which truly propelled him into the bracket of a world class right forward.
Just weeks before his 22nd birthday, Gnabry was snapped up by the Bavarian giants and immediately shipped out on loan to Hoffenheim, where he would spearhead the club’s charge to a place in the Champions League – the first time ever that they’d achieved the feat.
Upon returning to the Allianz Arena in the summer of 2018, there were to be no more temporary moves for the talented youngster.
Bayern was his home now, and boy has he made himself comfortable ever since.
Being tasked with carrying the hopes of one of European football’s behemoths at such a tender age is one thing, though when you consider the circumstances which Gnabry found himself in during his maiden season at the club, the enormity of his success at Bayern becomes apparent.
The Bavarians were enduring a period of transition as they sought the replacements for their infamous ‘Robbery’ duo. Both Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery had been mainstays in the Bayern starting XI for roughly a decade, with the former’s goal record in particular proving key in their quest for success.
Yet, with the duo approaching their mid-30s, the need for change was clear, and Gnabry was handed the unenviable task of replacing one of the most feared wingers in European football. Well, we say it was an ‘unenviable task’ but the German international appears to have relished every second of it.
In a squad brimming with talent, the youngster would be named Bayern’s Player of the Season in his debut campaign with the club, with his ability to seamlessly shift his weight as he bamboozled defenders offering a different conundrum to the man he replaced on Bayern’s right wing.
Unpredictability is a facet most widemen have in their game, yet Gnabry isn’t unpredictable in the sense you’ve no idea whether he’s going to perform or not, but more that defenders are clueless as to which way he’s going to shift or whether he’s going to shoot or chop back inside.
"He’s world class. There’s nobody else with his abilities in the Bundesliga. He can shoot with his left or right foot."- Niko Kovac
Having secured the first league title of his career with Bayern in 2019, Gnabry’s goals and creativity had already seen him become a fan favourite at the Allianz Arena, yet the man adjudged not good enough by Pulis just three years prior was in no mood to rest on his laurels.
While securing the German title has almost become an expectancy rather than an achievement at Bayern these days, the club’s performances in the Champions League is what truly defines their season.
During the ‘Robbery’ era, Bayern secured European glory just once in the pair’s decade together at the club, yet Gnabry would achieve the feat in just his second season at Bayern, with the former Arsenal man proving instrumental as Die Roten notched their sixth European crown, with Gnabry finishing the tournament with a stunning nine goals and two assists.
The Champions League trophy was added to the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal successes, marking an astonishing year for Bayern as they recorded just their second continental treble.
It seems absolutely absurd to think that just five years ago, Pulis looked back at his bench and decided that Callum McManaman was a better option than a man who has now gone on to become one of the best right forwards in the world.
But that’s football. Gnabry’s time at West Brom may be viewed as a failure on paper, but it looks to have helped instil a maturity and a mentality which has seen him develop into a true world class player.