Serge Gnabry and Arsenal’s Risk Averse Approach Towards Youth Talent
Hoffenheim aren’t having the same caliber of season as they did in 2016–17, where they were arguably the best story out of the Bundesliga in finishing 4th and qualifying for the final Champions League spot, losing to Liverpool in the playoff round. The shine on Julian Nagelsmann isn’t quite as pristine as it was 12 months ago and there has been a dip in underlying production, but we’re still talking about a team that’s roughly the 5th-6th best side in the Bundesliga, which is amazing considering that this is the same club that finished just one point above the relegation playoff spot in 2015–16.
What’s helped Hoffenheim this season has been the continued success of Serge Gnabry’s time in the Bundesliga, this time with Hoffenheim as he’s been able to work at times in a central role of sorts who occupies those areas during possession play and looks to find opportunities to make darting runs inside. His non-penalty goals + assists per 90 rate of 0.801 ranks among the best in the Bundesliga for players that have played at least 1000 minutes, higher than the likes of Leon Bailey, Julian Brandt, Timo Werner.
The fact that he’s been as productive as he’s been for Hoffenheim must sting a bit for Arsenal supporters, someone that was rated highly by numerous folks but never got a chance to prove himself outside of 2013–14 when he logged a minuscule 464 minutes. Gnabry is one of countless players who had brief cameos in the Premier League before going to another league and performing to a much higher standard on a greater sample size, and he’s also represents what arguably is Arsène Wenger’s greatest failure over the past few years: having an Arsenal squad that is lacking in terms of young talent capital within the first team squad.
One of the big things with Serge Gnabry over the past 2 seasons in the Bundesliga has been that he’s demonstrably overperformed xG numbers whether it was with Werder Bremen last season or this season in Hoffenheim. We’re still at a point within football analytics where quantifying finishing ability is a bit of a tricky subject, and certainly more nuanced than the generalizations that goes on concerning players (see: Mohamed Salah). The usual reaction within the more niche parts of Football Twitter is whenever a person outpaces their underlying production, we right it off as variance. It’s certainly logical on the face of it, though things get a bit more hairy once we’re getting to 2+ seasons worth of overperformance.
With that in mind, I tried looking at some of the shots on target this season from Gnabry just to see if there was anything to the idea that perhaps some of his overpeformance can be traced to both him being an awesome finisher and that he can consistently place his shot in areas that the goalkeeper cant’t get their hands on. In theory, this is what a post-shot xG model would highlight, how the shot was placed in addition to where the shot was taken to begin with.
Admittedly, this was kind of a fruitless exercise when you stop and think about it. Even with all the video footage at my disposal, we’d still be talking about two years worth of shots to dissect. If we disregard that part, even going through this video didn’t have me coming out of it thinking that Gnabry is going to project as a guy who will continue to appreciably beat out expected goal numbers. Maybe on a post-shot xG model, he’d rate out better than just a regular shot quality model, but I would classify myself as someone who is skeptical of Gnabry continually being this level of a finisher. Even with possible regression to come, that isn’t such a big problem when the baseline rates this season of 0.46 NPxG+xA per 90 + 4.38 Shot Contribution per 90 are perfectly solid for a 22 year old who’s in his second season of having regular minutes.
Gnabry isn’t tasked with being a high volume passer within Hoffenheim’s setup, ranking on the lower end among the squad. With regards to chance creation, he doesn’t represent someone with dual threat equity because he doesn’t take set pieces, so the bulk of his creation comes during open play. Gnabry hasn’t been bad in this department, but he’s not exactly elite in this. Having said that, I was impressed by the way in which he could leverage his athleticism into chances for other teammates, being able to get past markers because he’s a really good and functional athlete who can consistently create separation, while having enough awareness afterwards once the dribble is completed.
All things being equal, if you ranked Gnabry among the best talents in European football within the age 18–22 group who receive regular playing time in one of the 5–6 best leagues, I’m not sure that he grades out better than “pretty good”, but that in of itself is an accomplishment considering he’s played less than 4000 minutes in the Bundesliga. There’s something to like about Gnabry’s game, even if he doesn’t turn out to be an above average finisher on a larger sample size.
Serge Gnabry has had a good season, and it’s without question that his past two years in the Bundesliga have been a success with regards to his development. He’s a dynamic athlete who’s at least flashed the ability to create for others during open play. It’s fair to be quite skeptical of him being the kind of player to overperform expected goal numbers to such a ridiculous rate, but even with regression, there’s the baseline of an intriguing attacker already in place. When accounting for the fact that he’s still only 22 years old, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that there’s still some upside left in his game. Is he good enough to be a first team regular at Bayern Munich next season? I’m not willing to go that far, though it’s not even so much a slight at Gnabry’s play as much as that the standard to be a regular contributor at age 22–23 for a club like Bayern is ridiculously high.
Now let’s get to the part about Arsenal and young talent, because well, most of the title for the article is in reference to that. it’s certainly fair to point out that the manner in which Serge Gnabry is succeeding at Hoffenheim would’ve been harder to come by at Arsenal considering the role he’s being deployed in, but this hasn’t been a one off in terms of players within the academy feeling that there’s no pathways to the first team, with Reiss Nelson having previous frustrations over not getting playing time in a blowout victory versus Watford and Marcus McGuane making the switch to Barcelona nearly three months ago. If anything, Serge Gnabry’s departure and subsequent rise as a player in Germany can be viewed as another sign of the general shift that Arsenal have had as a club over the years, moving away from what made Wenger famous in the earlier parts of his career as someone who worked well with young talent into what we have currently where the club’s age profile has skewed towards late-prime and post-prime age talent. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of what happened with Manchester United under Alex Ferguson during his final couple of years where it was band-aid after band-aid being used by a manager who was at the end of his cycle, leaving United with a rebuilding job that they’ve only recently started to come out of (a fair amount of this has also been due to their own inadequacies in squad building, but that’s a story for another day).
I’ve been on record with my belief that mid-level clubs in the Premier League have to increase their risk profile to keep up, but I also think that logic largely applies to the next bracket of teams. Clubs like Liverpool/Tottenham/Arsenal who can’t quite spend the same level of money as other clubs have to be smarter in terms of shortening the gap. The academy is a bit different because outside of a handful of places in Europe that seem to generate credible young talents on a consistent basis, these things tend to move in cycles for the rest of clubs (Southampton being a perfect example of this) so it’s a bit harder to criticize clubs unless obvious malpractice is going on. Where it is more obvious to criticize is in the transfer market. More times than not, the best way to bridge the gap is by getting young talents and hoping that the educated guessing you did pays off for you, because you’re not going to get fully finished articles unless you’re one of the 4–5 biggest clubs in the world. If you do your homework, while it won’t become an exact science because variance is very much a thing in football, you should be able to do this better than most.
What’s made this extra infuriating for stat wonks and people who care about these things is that in regards to the transfer market, Arsenal should’ve been doing a larger scale version of what Dortmund have been doing the past couple of years in the transfer market once they were able to spend ample amounts of money in the market. Arsenal have had StatDNA for years, which should’ve helped in the process of finding youthful talents just before they blew up and became way more expensive. Go through Arsenal’s transfer record over the past few years and you’ll find a scarce amount of resources being put towards players 23 and under, especially in more advanced areas of the pitch with Danny Welbeck essentially being the only real gamble that Arsenal have taken on a supposed high upside talent since 2014. This isn’t to demean Welbeck because he’s been a productive player, but he can’t be your only swing at a potential star. The end result is what you have now, an aging squad that’s at best the 5th best in the league based on talent and is staring at considerable retooling if they want to get back to the top 4 in England, the type of situation that could’ve been avoided had the club taken on a more proactive approach towards accumulating young talent.
Keeping Serge Gnabry alone wouldn’t have fixed things, but even with the potential fit concerns that he would have on the squad, it sure would be nice for Arsenal to have a solid 22 year old attacking player at their disposal. Gnabry’s future will be interesting to monitor over the next few months. He’s still not at the level where he should be getting consistent reps at a club of Bayern Munich’s stature, but it says something that he’s a productive member on one of the 5–6 best teams in Germany. In isolation, Gnabry’s success outside of Arsenal is the kind of thing that one could just simply shrug their shoulders at and say it wasn’t meant to be, but that would be doing a disservice to a long standing problem that has plagued Arsenal and Arsène Wenger.