Serge Gnabry has been voted Bayern Munich’s official player of the season for 2018/19. Just how good has the former Arsenal man been for the record champions?
Bayern’s seventh consecutive Bundesliga title may have seen them pushed harder than in any season in recent memory – they only sealed the deal on the final day, finishing two points clear of Borussia Dortmund – but competition to be recognised as their best player was fierce, nonetheless.
Robert Lewandowski secured his third Torjägerkanone in four years last term, scoring a league-high 22 goals; Joshua Kimmich was and is rightly regarded as one of the best right-backs in the world, meanwhile, his 13 assists and a 91 percent pass completion in an ever-present campaign lending weight to such claims; and that’s even before accounting for the likes of David Alaba, Thiago Alcantara and Niklas Süle.
And yet Gnabry still stood out, somewhat against the odds, too. Arsenal, West Bromwich Albion, Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim and Bayern all carry their own cachet, but having each on any footballing CV might portray the career of a journeyman. Gnabry had that particular collection completed a month past his 23rd birthday, and question marks remained ahead of his first full season at the Allianz Arena.
“We thought, well, we’ll bring him back now and then see if he can play every now and then,” Bayern president Uli Hoeneß explained with the forward having spent the previous campaign on loan at the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena under Julian Nagelsmann.
Bayern coach Niko Kovac was similarly tepid in the early days. Robbery – Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery – began the season as the undisputed first choices in the wide attacking areas, and it wasn’t until November that Gnabry secured three consecutive starts for the first time.
Injuries to the veteran pair, who retired at the end of the campaign, and Kovac’s move to a 4-2-3-1 at Christmas, allowed Gnabry to come to the fore, though. Suddenly there was space in his preferred withdrawn role, wide of Lewandowski in the Bayern attack, and the VfB Stuttgart-honed youngster seized his opportunity.
Seven of Gnabry’s 10 goals came in the Rückrunde as Bayern roared back to overhaul BVB. Only Lewandowski – an out-and-out centre-forward – scored more. Gnabry became just the third different player to score into the double figures with three different clubs in three consecutive Bundesliga seasons (after 11 with Bremen and 10 with Hoffenheim), but his game was about so much more than just goals.
Gnabry’s positional awareness and two-footedness, combined with a top speed of 21.6 miles per hour, made him quite the conundrum for opposition defences. Those attributes helped him collect five assists alongside his 10 goals, but they also helped Bayern in other departments.
Watch: Gnabry under the tactical microscope
With Gnabry in the starting XI, Bayern averaged 2.6 points per game with 2.8 goals scored and 0.8 conceded. With the 23-year-old watching on from the bench, they averaged 1.8 points per game, with 2.3 goals scored and 1.2 conceded.
Brains and brawn, Gnabry keeps the opposition left-back – or, sometimes, right-back – on the back foot, effectively reducing the champions' opponents to having to attack with nine men. Nearly half a goal less conceded with him starting, in the final third, is a considerable upswing.
With his James Harden-esque celebrations on the pitch and vegan diet off it, Gnabry has matured into a fascinating character. Hoeneß has joked that Gnabry’s reliance on lentils and peas could set back his bratwurst business, but the Bayern side of his portfolio could hardly look safer.
“Now he’s a regular player, he’s a lot of fun and is the biggest surprise of the season, in a positive way!” Hoeneß concluded. Even Lewandowski and Kimmich have to admit the chairman has a point.