Serge Gnabry is fast becoming one of the stars of world football.
Since his move to the Bundesliga in 2016, Gnabry has notched 52 goals in 128 games, including a stunning hat-trick at his former club’s north London rivals Tottenham in the Champions League.
For no apparent reason, it’s become fashionable in football to beat certain British managers with a stick over their past decisions. The likes of Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgson are regularly singled out for criticism, yet their former glories are seldom celebrated.
Number one in the hit list of British managers that it’s cool to hate; Tony Pulis.
So, when football fans recall that Pulis had Gnabry at his disposal for a season at West Bromwich Albion - yet contrived to offer the Bayern Munich star just one measly first-team appearance - it of course becomes cool to laugh at the Welshman’s tactical ineptitude.
Well hindsight is a wonderful thing, and despite what football fans all over the world may believe, Pulis’ handling of Gnabry was far from unjust.
Pulis-haters will have you believe that the former Stoke boss had a wonderkid sat on the bench all season, but the fact of the matter is this; Gnabry was far from the player he is today.
The player Pulis signed had turned 20 just a few weeks earlier and had recently completed rehabilitation on a knee injury which ruled him out for the majority of the previous season. It was going to take time for the youngster to recover and regain match sharpness, and - even once he had - his body would have been far less developed than it is four years on at Bayern.
Many will attribute Gnabry’s lack of game time to the fact that Pulis is a tactical dinosaur; and his preference for a rigid, defensive unit over a free-flowing football team can’t be denied. However, this is not the reason Gnabry wasn’t afforded a chance at West Brom. Pulis loves a pacey winger.
When you consider Pulis’ CV, his time at Stoke and Middlesbrough has seen some wingers produce the best football of their careers. Matthew Etherington had spells under the stewardship of Glenn Hoddle and Gianfranco Zola – neither of who were criticised for defensive preference – but it was under Pulis where Etherington produced his best figures in the Premier League.
Adama Traore was labelled a 100m sprinter with no end-product when he arrived at Middlesbrough. There was clear potential in the boots of the Spaniard, yet no matter how hard they tried, no manager had been able to unlock the potential in the youngster. Aitor Karanka, Gerardo Martino, even Luis Enrique – all tried without success.
When Pulis arrived at Middlesbrough, he found a winger bereft of confidence on the fringes of first team action and transformed him into a superstar. Traore would go on to become the best player in the Championship, before moving to Wolves for £18m – a figure which would have been doubled if it wasn’t for the Spaniard’s release clause.
The fact is, just because a player isn’t at the peak of his powers when he is with a certain club, doesn’t mean the manager has missed a trick in not playing him. Current-England captain Harry Kane had many a loan spell in the infancy of his career.
The Tottenham man signed for Norwich City on loan in 2012, at the tender age of 19 – just a year younger than Gnabry when he signed for West Brom – and made just three league appearances. His spell at Carrow Road was cut short due to injury, but the youngster had been afforded very few chances in the Canaries side, yet nobody lambasts Chris Hughton for not playing one of the greatest strikers the Premier League has ever seen.
And that’s not to say that youngsters shouldn’t be given a chance because they will only develop when in their early 20s – Jamie Vardy mustered just five goals for Leicester City in 34 games at the age of 27, yet has gone on to score 19 in 26 at the age of 33.
The fact is each player must be judged on merit of their form in each specific season. Throwing a blanket over a player’s career and saying they’ve always been the player they were at their best isn’t how football works.
Following his unproductive spell in the midlands, Gnabry returned to north London where he failed to last more than a summer before being shipped off to Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen.
Arsène Wenger’s time at Arsenal saw him become renowned for plucking out some of the finest talents in Europe. Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fàbregas – all went on to become superstars of the game having been signed by the Frenchman.
However, it was Wenger who sanctioned the sale of Gnabry – for a measly £5m, so financial muscle played no part in the deal – and yet no criticism is levelled at Wenger when Gnabry’s rise is considered.
In truth, some players just aren’t at the level required at a young age. Who knows, Gnabry’s brief spell under Pulis could have been the making of the German star, we’ll probably never know. But one thing is for sure, criticising Pulis for not playing him more at West Brom is totally undeserved.