Fashion-icon Serge Gnabry is set to break through on German football’s biggest stage as he eagerly awaits his first season at the Allianz Arena. His arrival could not come soon enough as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery enter the twilight of their legendary careers. With Robbery’s age and injury records preventing them from reaching their previous heights, Gnabry will be key to new manager Niko Kovac’s attack. The young German has all the tools to take the next step and the Croatian’s tactical approach may provide the perfect platform to do so.
How did Gnabry get here?
The young winger’s meteoric rise in the 2016-17 campaign while at Werder Bremen, came after he was unable to break into the first team at Arsenal where he spent a majority of his youth career. Arsene Wenger’s loss turned into Bayern Munich’s gain (shocking, I know) as the Bavarian giants secured the services of the German for €8 million just a year after his arrival in Bremen.
With Robben and Ribery still viewed as key players, Die Roten opted to continue his development on a season-long loan at TSG Hoffenheim. Despite a few injury hurdles, the crafty winger reminded Bayern fans why he was worth the wait, scoring a goal and impressing Jupp Heynckes in a Hoffenheim loss to Heynckes’ men. Not to mention his half field wonder-goal against RB Leipzig.
These highlights provide only a taste of his ability, but what can he bring to the Rekordmeister?
What does he bring to the table?
First of all, Gnabry is the archetypal Kovac player: young, pacey, crafty and raw. Most importantly, however, the winger is positionally flexible and quick to adapt. While at Bremen he played predominantly as a winger in the mold of Ribery, cutting inside from the left, contributing 11 goals and 1 assist in 27 Bundesliga appearances (Whoscored). Although this is a role he may feature in prominently throughout this campaign, it is his time under Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim that really gives cause for optimism.
The young German tactician, similarly to Bayern’s new boss, employs multiple systems throughout the same match in reaction to the opposition. Kovac’s desire for a tactically flexible side that shifts between a “back 3” and “back 4” will not be new to the 23-year old.
While at Hoffenheim, Gnabry featured on the left, right and center of midfield, appearing predominantly on the left wing and up front on the right side of a strike partnership. Despite early injuries, he went on to have his most productive campaign yet, contributing 10 goals and five assists and averaging just over one key pass and two key dribbles per match in 22 Bundesliga appearance (Whoscored).
The former Arsenal man has also been the subject of experimentation during this preseason, featuring in four different positions, including right back.
Along with the German international’s tactical acumen, his demonstrated ability to finish and create shows he has the potential to become a dominant winger in the modern game, which prioritizes scoring.
Why is he vital?
Although rumors of their demise may be premature, time is unforgiving for Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. At 34 and 35 respectively, Niko Kovac has already alluded to new roles for each off the bench.
In a July editorial, TZ analyzed Robbery’s data, indicating a rather steep drop off in quality and athleticism.
According to kicker data, Ribery’s top speed dropped from 34.45 to 33.35 km / h in the comparison to the 2016/2017 season, while Robben’s dropped less dramatically, from 32.86 to 32.55 km / h.
This in and of itself is not surprising, considering the wear and tear such esteemed careers can have on players, but decreased production is a worry.
Their dribbling success rates were much bleaker. While the Frenchman completed 50.7 per cent of his attempts in the previous season, it dropped to 33.3 percent at the end this campaign— exactly one in three. The Dutchman plummeted down in this statistic from 61.8 percent to 39.4 percent.
Dribbling and pace aren’t everything, but they are a significant piece of modern attacking and Kovac’s predisposition for counter-attacking football.
Robben and Ribery also struggled to finish and create chances. In 35 appearances in all competitions, the 34-year old Dutchman contributed eight goals and 11 assists, while the 35-year old Frenchman was only able to contribute six goals and two assists in 33 appearances (Whoscored and ESPN). Neither one of them had a decidedly poor campaign, but they did not provide the scoring prowess needed to share some of the burden with Robert Lewandowski who was targeted and largely contained in big matches.
Before Kingsley Coman’s season was cut short by injury, he was beginning to show his ability, but he is in need of another true winger to partner with, rather than Thomas Muller, who is most effective down the center of the pitch.
Bayern’s recent rejection of Anthony Martial and the disappearance of links with Ante Rebić has sent a clear message: Gnabry will be given his chance to fill the shoes of Robbery and partner with Coman. Whether he will play on the left or the right is insignificant, Coman and the German winger can not only provide service to Lewandowski, but also shoulder a larger burden than Die Roten’s aging wingers.
The partnership between Coman and the 23-year old German may finally serve as the Robbery replacement the Bayern brass have been searching for. Gnabry told bundesliga.com he is working hard to ensure this becomes reality:
It would be a dream to have the same kind of career as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. I work hard on that every day.”
Will G (Gnabry) L (Lewandowski) C (Coman) be the next elite front three?