James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
Emirates Stadium, LONDON — When Arsene Wenger named his starting line-up for Saturday's FA Cup tie with Tottenham, he must have known he was taking a few gambles. Leaving Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker and Mesut Ozil out of his team was a calculated risk.
Rather fittingly, the Gunners walked out to the blaring sound of the Reverend and The Makers hit, “Shine A Light.” The lyrics, asking for the “light of luck” to shine down, might have reflected the thoughts of the Arsenal manager. A mistake from Lukasz Fabianski or Thomas Vermaelen would have seen Wenger roundly castigated and criticised for his decision.
However, every single one of Wenger’s selections paid dividends, and no star shone more brightly than that of German teenager Serge Gnabry.
Gnabry was something of a surprise selection. His presence in the team came at the expense of his more experienced countrymen, Ozil and Lukas Podolski. What’s more, this was his first start since the end of September. For Wenger to throw Gnabry straight in to the gauntlet of a crucial North London derby was a significant show of faith.
That confidence was repaid in full. The 18-year-old didn’t look remotely overawed by the occasion.
From the first minute, Gnabry attacked with verve and zeal from his station on the right flank. His combination of physical power and technical excellence bears comparison with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Like the Englishman, Gnabry is also blessed with a football brain: His use of the ball is always intelligent and occasionally ingenious.
It was the youngster who created Arsenal’s opening goal, swivelling inside and driving at the Tottenham defence before poking a perfectly weighted through ball in to the path of Santi Cazorla.
Stamina can sometimes be an issue for young players, but Gnabry’s electric performance showed little sign of slowing as the game wore on. Had Theo Walcott’s finishing been a little sharper, he might even have had another assist or two.
After the game, Wenger was keen to stress that this is not the first time Gnabry has shone this season. He told Arsenal.com that the German “played well at Swansea and at Crystal Palace.” Wenger is right: Gnabry made crucial contributions in both games.
However, this was the first time he has produced a performance of that calibre on home soil. Some 60,000 Arsenal fans were present to witness his enthralling display. The potential is mouthwatering.
Wenger is keen to keep managed expectations. Speaking to Arsenal.com directly after the game, he said:
I am a strong believer in Serge, because I integrated him at the start of last season but let’s not make superstars with one game. The top level is [about] consistency but I believe the ingredients are there. He has to show he can turn up with these performances in every game.
The Arsenal manager is right to urge caution. He will be keen to protect his young star from the limelight. However, he knows all too well that the maxim “if you’re good enough, then you’re old enough” is never truer than in football.
Prior to this match, Wenger might have been considering allowing Gnabry to leave on loan to gain match experience. However, any such thoughts will now be far from his mind.
On the evidence of this enthralling performance against Tottenham, Gnabry has the potential to become an important part of Arsenal’s title charge.