Much like Hoffenheim themselves, Serge Gnabry has had an up-and-down season on loan from Bayern Munich. Criticised for his finishing and used in a variety of positions by coach Julian Nagelsmann, the former Arsenal and Werder Bremen attacker has hit back in emphatic style on the pitch.
Gnabry joined Hoffenheim on loan from Bayern at his own request, after moving from Werder Bremen to the record Bundesliga champions in the summer of 2017. While the first half of his campaign was blighted by injuries, the 22-year-old has become an almost permanent fixture in the TSG team since November.
His role within the team, however, has been the subject of much debate – as it has for much of his still fledgling career. Coach Nagelsmann realises that his side needs the quality of a Gnabry, but the problem has been how to get the best out of him. In 19 Bundesliga appearances this season, the Germany international has been deployed in no fewer than five different positions.
Watch: Serge Gnabry on cooking his talent at Hoffenheim!
Gnabry was once seen predominantly as a left winger happy to come inside onto his stronger right foot, but Nagelsmann – lauded for his willingness to try out different tactical approaches – has looked to experiment with the youngster.
Initially using Gnabry as a striker just off the main centre-forward, Nagelsmann then made the rather surprising decision in February to employ the two-time Germany international as a right wing-back. Ever the professional, the man who also gives up one per cent of his wages for the Common Goal initiative alongside his coach set about doing his best.
“If the coach puts me at right-back, it’s clearly because he’s given it some thought - even though I’m a player who prefers attacking,” said the winger/striker/full-back rolled into one.
Nagelsmann himself justified the decision with some thinly-veiled criticism of the forward: “He’s not a merciless killer in front of goal. He's a mixture of taker and maker who can start moves.” That, despite Gnabry having scored from the halfway line against RB Leipzig only weeks earlier.
Watch: Gnabry’s goal-of-the-season contender against Leipzig
Perhaps a clever coaching tactic by the 30-year-old to spur his attacker on, because Gnabry has certainly responded on the pitch.
After spending two games at right wing-back, the Stuttgart native has gone on to net five goals in six Bundesliga outings, from just 16 attempts on goal. His impressive shots-to-goals ratio of 3.20 puts Gnabry on a par with the Bundesliga's top marksman, Robert Lewandowski, who has netted a goal for every 3.66 shots over the same period. It shows that the Hoffenheim man is right up there with the best of them.
For another comparison, Gnabry and former Bremen teammate Max Kruse have both fired off 44 attempts on goal across the season as a whole, yet the Hoffenheim man has two goals more (8).
Perhaps Nagelsmann’s criticism was aimed at the forward’s supposed inability to be ice-cold inside the penalty area, but the former Arsenal youngster has a helpful habit of striking from beyond 18 yards. Four times he has found the back of the net from outside the box this season, a joint league high with Leipzig’s Naby Keita.
In Matchday 28’s 6-0 thrashing of Cologne, he conjured up two wonderful solo goals - one from inside the area and one from outside - and demonstrating his innate ability to find the back of the net will surely have gone a long way to appeasing his coach.
Watch: Gnabry scores twice as Hoffenheim take Cologne apart
Known for his in-depth analysis of players and teams, Nagelsmann has perhaps also looked at Gnabry’s statistics from last season in Bremen. Despite playing just 27 Bundesliga matches, the forward had more efforts on goal than any other Werder player (62) and scored 11 goals.
Compared to last term, his shots-to-goals ratio has improved – perhaps not enough for his coach – but the forward’s efforts will certainly have been noted by the boss.
Moreover, Gnabry’s goals have gone a long way towards securing Hoffenheim a second consecutive European campaign. Having missed out on a maiden UEFA Champions League campaign after a play-off loss to Liverpool, TSG are now seventh, which could be enough to see them into next season's UEFA Europa League.
Nagelsmann and Gnabry are nothing if not ambitious, however. They will be only too aware that automatic Champions League participation remains well within their grasp, with Eintracht Frankfurt only three points ahead of them in fourth place. If the 22-year-old can continue his current hot streak, Hoffenheim could easily find themselves dining at Europe's top table in 2018/19.