Serge Gnabry: MD14's Man of the Matchday
To those who suggest that goals from the halfway line tend to be flukes – and those sort of killjoys do exist – just show them footage of Serge Gnabry's wonder strike during Hoffenheim's 4-0 demolition of RB Leipzig on Matchday 14.
After all, Gnabry knew what he was doing. With Leipzig two goals down and chasing the game, the attacking midfielder was aware that the visitors would intensify their already extraordinarily high-pressing game, pushing deeper into the Hoffenheim half in an attempt to win the ball back. In turn, that would create space behind the defence, space that the hosts' attackers could exploit.
Indeed, for his first goal - that put his side 2-0 up after Nadiem Amiri's opener - Gnabry had already taken full advantage of the space behind Leipzig's high line, latching onto Kevin Akpoguma's long ball, sprinting in behind and firing a powerful shot past Peter Gulacsi to round off a classic Bundesliga transition goal.
Watch: Highlights of Hoffenheim's thrashing of Leipzig
Gnabry was aware that as Leipzig became more desperate, even more space would open up in behind and the visitors' goalkeeper Gulacsi would be forced to come further off his line to cover. The Hungarian was – unwittingly, but quite literally – wandering into dangerous territory.
This wasn't really about Gulacsi, though. Not even remotely. This was all Gnabry's own work, and Gulacsi could only admire a piece of expertly executed skill from 48 yards like the rest of us.
"I'd been looking the whole time," Gnabry told Sky afterwards of his goal, which instantly went viral on social media. "I was just hoping that he wouldn't reach it. It went in, though, and to be honest it was a great goal."
Watch: Gnabry reflects on his first goals in a Hoffenheim shirt
It was also a goal that underlined that Gnabry is back to his best, rounding off as it did a perfect – if slightly delayed – introduction to a new adoring public at the Wirsol Rhein Neckar Arena.
That the brace represented his first goals for Hoffenheim, however, points to the fact that it hasn't all run smoothly for the 22-year-old since arriving on loan from Bayern Munich in the summer. Following a delayed pre-season due to his involvement in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, Gnabry struggled for form at the start of the campaign and then had his progress checked by a succession of niggling muscular injuries, the most recent of which had threatened to rule him out of the win against Leipzig.
When he had played, as in Matchday 13's 3-0 defeat in Hamburg – his first start since late September – things hadn't gone according to plan, as Gnabry himself admitted.
"In the last couple of games I had a lot of chances, which I should've scored, but I didn't," he told bundesliga.com afterwards. "Today, luckily both of them went in. It gives me a lot of confidence and I'll keep working hard."
It hadn't just been Gnabry struggling prior to the Leipzig victory, however; coming into Matchday 14, Hoffenheim had only picked up two wins in 11 competitive games, the first real poor run of Julian Nagelsmann's tenure. The Sinsheim outfit were lacking spark and energy (perhaps down to competing on three fronts for the first time), culminating in that defeat in Hamburg, after which the young coach went public to question his players' desire and demand improvement.
Nagelsmann made five changes to the side for the Leipzig game although, in what would prove a masterstroke, Gnabry was retained after being passed fit. The loanee responded to those demands for improvement in some style, putting an end to his own dry spell by scoring his first two goals for the club and his first competitive goals for any club since early May.
In fact, a closer look at the statistics shows that Gnabry's two goals came from only two shots against Leipzig, an indication that he is well on his way to rediscovering the form that brought him 11 goals in a struggling Werder Bremen side last season and persuaded Bayern to swoop.
Speaking of the champions, Gnabry's goals were certainly well received in Munich. Hoffenheim's victory and Bayern's simultaneous win against Hannover meant that the Bavarians extended their lead over Leipzig at the top of the Bundesliga to six points; that it was one of their own who had done the damage while announcing his return to form was only further cause for celebration. Gnabry is most definitely back.