How do you go from being told you’re not good enough to becoming a key player for club and country? Just ask Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry, who has proven his West Bromwich Albion doubters wrong to arguably become Germany’s most feared attacker.
“Serge has come here to play games but he just hasn’t been for me, at the moment, at that level to play the games.” It seems an extraordinary misjudgment with hindsight, but that was the view of West Brom manager Tony Pulis of Gnabry in October 2015, having taken the then-20-year-old on loan from Arsenal.
Fast-forward four years and Gnabry appears unplayable. He scored four times against Tottenham Hotspur in an astonishing 7-2 UEFA Champions League win for Bayern recently, tormented Argentina for Germany in Dortmund in October, scoring one and setting up Kai Havertz for another in a 2-2 draw, and hit a hat-trick in the Euro 2020 qualifying win over Northern Ireland in the November international break.
Watch: The inexorable rise of Serge Gnabry
That took the 24-year-old’s tally to nine goals in seven games for Die Mannschaft in 2019, more than any other player in Joachim Löw’s squad. It also took his incredible record at international level to 13 goals in 13 senior outings, something only one other player in German history has achieved: Gerd Müller.
Löw, understandably, did not hold back in his praise of his No.20: “He can hold the ball up, run into space, score himself or set others up. He’s developed unbelievably.”
Indeed, Gnabry’s current hot streak – including three goals and three assists in 10 Bundesliga appearances this season - is no mere purple patch.
After all, he was voted as Bayern’s Player of the Season in his debut campaign at the club in 2018/19, beating the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and Joshua Kimmich to the accolade after providing six assists and 13 goals in 42 competitive outings. He also won the Bundesliga's Player of the Month award for October 2019.
So how did he get to where he is, having been deemed surplus to requirements at West Brom? Well, arguably it is thanks to that experience that the Stuttgart-born attacker has developed into the player he is today.
“I tried my best at West Brom and it didn’t work out,” he told the Mail on Sunday recently. “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.’ You always know your worth, off the pitch or on the pitch. I knew my capabilities. But I would say the mental side progressed really high during that time and helped me be who I am now.”
That new-found strength also helped Gnabry take a difficult decision at the end of his spell in the West Midlands in 2015/16, when he opted to leave Arsenal and join Werder Bremen. He has not looked back since.
Watch: Gnabry's Bundesliga highlight reel
Gnabry plundered 11 goals in 27 Bundesliga games for the Green-Whites the following season, enough to persuade Bayern to secure his signature.
However, the attacker was aware he only had one full year of first-team football behind him and requested to be loaned to Hoffenheim in order to better equip himself for the challenge of competing with the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Kingsley Coman at the Allianz Arena.
It proved to be another wise decision and working under a shrewd coach in Julian Nagelsmann in 2017/18, Gnabry continued to develop. He learned to play in a variety of positions, including centre forward, across the midfield and even as a wing-back, and again reached double figures by scoring 10 in 22 games, including one sensational long-range effort against RB Leipzig.
Watch: Gnabry's wonderstrike against Leipzig
That was followed up by his barnstorming maiden season at Bayern, where he became just the third player in Bundesliga history to hit double figures for three different clubs in consecutive seasons.
Gnabry’s latest exploits are, therefore, simply the most recent evidence that he is, in the word of Pulis, very much “at the level”.