Arsene Wenger Thought Serge Gnabry 'Would Stay' at Arsenal in 2016

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2020

ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 25:  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger talks with player Serge Gnabry as Aaron Ramsey warms up during a training session at London Colney on November 25, 2013 in St Albans, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Serge Gnabry's career trajectory has only trended upwards since he left Arsenal in 2016, but former Gunners boss Arsene Wenger believed Gnabry would sign a new contract in north London instead of returning to Germany.

Wenger discussed Gnabry as a pundit for BeIN Sports (h/t Metro's Sean Kearns) on a night when the 24-year-old scored twice for Bayern Munich during a 3-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

As well as revealing Gnabry told Arsenal he would stay put, Wenger implied the gifted forward didn't work as hard:

"He has no real limitations it's more how much does he want to suffer. Because he has pace, power, technical ability, he's very intelligent, sometimes he looks for the easy way in football. That's what was his problem. He lacked a bit. I gave him to West Brom, it didn't work out at all. In fairness I think we had an agreement with him but Bayern stole him away from Werder Bremen."

Wenger also hinted Bayern took an under-the-radar approach to securing Gnabry's transfer in 2017:

"We had prepared him for us to sign his new contract but then suddenly he wanted to go to Werder Bremen. But it was not Werder Bremen that bought him it was Munich that bought him. Because six months or less than one year later he moved from Bremen to Bayern but it was a done deal before. He was at the end of his contract and we thought that he would stay because he told he would stay."

The suggestion Bayern had put together a clandestine deal with Werder Bremen was dismissed at the time. Bremen sporting director Frank Baumann said when the deal was announced: "There aren't any agreements with other clubs." 

The winger did play just a single campaign in Bremen before moving to Bayern, scoring 11 goals in 27 Bundesliga matches. Yet while Wenger wanted to agree fresh terms with the player, Gnabry had hardly become a regular in the Arsenal starting XI on the Frenchman's watch.

Wenger brought Gnabry to the Gunners from Stuttgart as a 15-year-old in 2011. The teenager was left waiting until the 2012/13 campaign to appear in the Premier League, playing in a 1-0 defeat away to Norwich City.

Gnabry's next foray into league action came almost a year later when he started and scored to help Arsenal beat Swansea City 3-1. His promise was obvious, since Gnabry allied a powerful frame with natural acceleration and a calmness in front of goal belying his tender years.

A knee injury derailed his development before the ill-fated decision to send Gnabry on loan to West Bromwich Albion in 2015. Then-Baggies manager Tony Pulis doubted Gnabry's ability to thrive at the highest level, an opinion now the source of mockery with every goal the winger scores for Bayern:

Gary Lineker @GaryLineker

Gnabry misses a decent chance for his hat-trick. Pulis was right. 🤪

Pulis' words already seemed poorly thought out when Gnabry finished as top scorer at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and helped Germany reach the final, where they lost to the hosts. Ultimately, Gnabry parlayed those goals into an Arsenal exit and the chance for more first-team football.

No matter how convoluted his path to the Allianz Arena was, Gnabry has been delivering on the potential Wenger saw since making the switch, scoring 17 times and providing nine assists this season. He took his goals against Chelsea brilliantly, producing two mature finishes after combining well with Robert Lewandowski:

B/R Football @brfootball

Three minutes, two goals, one Serge Gnabry 🔴⚪️ https://t.co/a9UYrEm5Q7

In the process, Gnabry added to the four goals he scored against Arsenal's north London derby rivals in October. His masterclass in forward play helped visiting Bayern beat Tottenham Hotspur 7-2 in October.

The Germany international's prolific haul in the English capital underlines how many steps he's taken in his development since leaving the Gunners:

OptaJoe @OptaJoe

6 - Serge Gnabry has scored six goals in just two appearances in London for Bayern Munich, having scored none in nine appearances in London for Arsenal between 2012 and 2014. Capitalising. #CHEBAY https://t.co/ZU0b2ljAUR

Naturally, a statistic like this only serves as a further indictment of Arsenal's inability to secure the future of such an exciting prospect when he was on the books. Recriminations along these lines are common every time Gnabry delivers the goods.

While it's always tempting to rue what might have been, there's no doubt Gnabry's post-Arsenal ascension has to irk Wenger and the club's supporters.

Signing unknown youngsters and turning them into marquee stars was the entire basis of Wenger's recruitment model when Arsenal left Highbury for the Emirates Stadium in 2006. It's how he tried to stay competitive while the club paid off a sizeable debt incurred during the move and dealt with the increased riches of their rivals, including Roman Abramovich-owned Chelsea.

The approach helped Arsenal remain a top-four and Champions League club for a decade, but Wenger only won three FA Cups during the same timeframe. Losing a star-in-the-making like Gnabry was an obvious misstep during a period when Wenger couldn't afford a mistake of this scale.

To add insult to injury, Gnabry isn't the only hidden gem Arsenal should regret overlooking. Donyell Malen was acquired from Ajax by Wenger in 2015, only to see him leave for PSV Eindhoven in search of more minutes two years later.

The forward, who scored 11 goals in 2018/19, was flourishing before a knee injury ruled him out for the season:

Squawka Football @Squawka

Donyell Malen has now scored 14 goals in 17 appearances for PSV in all competitions this season. Can't stop, won't stop scoring. https://t.co/38my7Uv3sm

Wenger will look back on Gnabry and Malen as two genuine opportunities missed. Yet Arsenal can show lessons have been learned from each case by tying latest youth sensation, Bukayo Saka, down to a new deal.

The 18-year-old is out of contract in the summer of 2021, and Manchester United are reportedly already showing interest. Losing this burgeoning creative outlet to a rival would be a hammer blow to the credibility of the rebuilding project that Wenger's former skipper, Mikel Arteta, is now undertaking from the Arsenal dugout.

Squawka Football @Squawka

Bukayo Saka has now provided 10 assists across all competitions for Arsenal this season, more than any other player at the club. A sensational ball from the 18-year-old. 🔥 https://t.co/UDDU9jNRNN

Wenger made identifying and harnessing young talent the cornerstone of how Arsenal succeeded and regenerated, rather than relying on heavy spending on established stars. Clubs who operate in this way need more hits than misses, making Gnabry an oversight who will continue to haunt the Gunners.