Robert Lewandowski would surely have won the cancelled Ballon d'Or; Leroy Sane looks like the signing of the summer, but Serge Gnabry - following his hat-trick against Schalke - is proving once again that he might just be Bayern Munich's best player.
Playing their first competitive game since securing the treble by beating Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in the UEFA Champions final four weeks ago, it was a statement performance by Bayern as they began the defence of their Bundesliga title with an 8-0 thrashing of the Royal Blues.
Gnabry had stated in the build-up that the goal was to retain all three trophies. Fitting, then, that he kicked it all off with three strikes of his own. “It was the perfect start for us,” he told bundesliga.com after the game. “Obviously, I’m happy to have scored three goals, which were well assisted by my teammates.”
His first came only four minutes into the new season as he controlled a long ball from Joshua Kimmich, spun his markers and fired home the earliest goal of a Bundesliga campaign since 2002.
He was even quicker off the mark in the second half, netting just two minutes after the restart following a lightning break from new man Sane. The dynamic duo then combined again as the former Schalke man chested down the ball, shrugged off Ozan Kabak and then teed up his compatriot for his third of the night.
“He gave me two assists today so I am very happy,” Gnabry said when asked about how much he enjoyed playing with Sane at club level.
Although by no means the first hat-trick of his senior career, having already bagged two for Germany – plus his record-breaking four-goal haul against Tottenham Hotspur last season – it was Gnabry’s first in the Bundesliga.
Watch: All of Gnabry’s Bundesliga goals and assists in 2019/20
Now 25 and in his fifth season back in Germany, it’s a remarkable rise for someone once deemed not good enough to play for Arsenal or West Bromwich Albion in England. Spells at Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim allowed Gnabry the playing time he needed to grow and blossom, before developing into Bayern’s arguably best player.
When the record champions line up, all eyes are undoubtedly on goalscoring supremo Lewandowski, who last season became the first player to ever win the continental treble AND be top scorer in all three competitions.
Attention is now also drawn to marquee summer signing Sane. After tearing up defences in the English Premier League for four years, the former Schalke winger demonstrated just how far he’s come on his Bundesliga return with a goal and two more assists against his boyhood club.
The only player capable of stealing the headlines from both, though, is Gnabry. Already in 2018/19, he was voted the club’s Player of the Season. Last term, he was the sole Bayern player in double figures for both goals and assists in the Bundesliga, and almost singlehandedly got them through to the Champions League final with his brace in the semis against Lyon.
The first of those goals alone showed just how crucial Gnabry is to this Munich team. With the French side on the front foot and Lewandowski being marshalled by three centre-backs, the winger took the game by the scruff of the neck, dribbling past four Lyon defenders before smashing a left-foot rocket home from the edge of the box.
It was Arjen Robben-esque, from a player who is naturally right-footed. Unsurprising, then, that he’s now been handed the iconic No.7 shirt previously worn by the Dutchman’s partner-in-crime Franck Ribery. And Gnabry has immediately shown he can live up to the expectation that comes with it.
Coach Hansi Flick was quick to play down comparisons of Robbery with Gnabry and Sane (combined name still to be settled on), but did admit the pair have laid down a marker with their opening night show.
It’s verging on the blasphemous, but you can even debate that Gnabry brings more to this Bayern team than either Lewandowski or Sane. He’s a modern forward, equally adept at playing in any position across the front line. Flick has utilised him on both flanks without any dip in performance, as well as through the middle, similar to his former boss Joachim Löw, who has frequently chosen to play the European U17 champion and top scorer at the 2016 Rio Olympics as his centre-forward for the national team.
At just 25, there is still plenty of time to Gnabry to improve further. It’s a terrifying thought for defenders across the Bundesliga and Europe that Bayern’s best player still has more to come.