While many Premier League managers used the FA Cup third round to play some untested youngsters, the importance of a north London derby meant Arsene Wenger was always likely to name a strong side for Saturday’s tie against Tottenham Hotspur.
The only unusual name in the starting XI was Serge Gnabry. Although the German youngster will be familiar to those who have watched Arsenal throughout the campaign, this was his first start since September. While his substitute appearances in the intervening period have been encouraging, even his biggest admirers will have been pleasantly surprised at his impact last weekend.
"Gnabry’s pace is his most eye-catching quality, having been a talented sprinter when younger"
Arsenal’s wide players can be split into two distinct categories. There are those who drift inside into the No 10 position, providing an extra creative option in the centre of midfield - Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, when fielded on the flank. Then there are more direct options, who offer drive and width: Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Gnabry naturally belongs in the latter category. With Walcott - unfortunately now injured - playing up front in the absence of Olivier Giroud and Nicklas Bendtner, Gnabry played on the right, providing energy and forward running and ensuring Arsenal’s play didn’t become too congested with Cazorla drifting inside from the opposite flank.
After all, Gnabry’s pace is his most eye-catching quality, having been a talented sprinter when younger. “Speed is a valuable asset in beating opponents and racing on to passes,” he says. His heatmap demonstrates his postioning - staying in centre-right positions, rather than hugging the touchline.
The German is a direct dribbler, and while he starts in wide positions he’s also capable of charging towards goal in the middle of the pitch, somewhat like Oxlade-Chamberlain, who he’s comparable to in a physical respect too. “Gnabry has the body to cope with the duels,” said Arsene Wenger earlier this season. “We have some other boys who have the technical quality to play in the Premier League but are not resistant enough yet to compete physically, but he has that.”
"Gnabry showed great intelligence by darting inside and taking advantage of the space between the lines"
Gnabry showed intelligence as well as strength. Tottenham’s defence played very deep to guard against Walcott’s pace, but Gnabry showed great intelligence by darting inside and taking advantage of the space between the lines - the interchanging of positions between him and Walcott was crucial for Cazorla’s opener.
It’s easy for youngsters to play a mere supporting role, but Gnabry was Arsenal’s stand-out player, proving his quality in both attack and defence. Usually, emerging wingers are promising but also underwhelming with their final product - Gnabry already looks to be an efficient attacker, as well as an exciting one.
He was by far Arsenal’s most creative outlet; the home side created 10 chances in the game and Gnabry was responsible for six of them, including brilliantly teeing up Cazorla for the opener. As our chalkboard below indicates, the yellow passes indicate chances created, the blue pass is the assist.
The red shot is the Gnabry’s lone attempt on goal, a powerful left-footed first-half drive that flew narrowly over Hugo Lloris’ crossbar, although he concentrated on supplying teammates.
Encouragingly, Gnabry was also diligent in his defensive duties. As well as being the game’s leading chance creator, he was also the joint most-prolific tackler alongside Nacho Monreal. The below graphic illustrates the position of his tackles (the green triangles) and his ‘ball recoveries’ (yellow triangles), where he picked up loose balls. The advanced positioning of the recoveries is extremely useful for a side that attempts to win the ball high up the pitch.
“He is a very young boy but he has the quality, is bright and he has a good football brain,” Wenger said after the victory. “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.”
A master of developing young talent, Wenger is keen to play down the hype about Gnabry. But with the news that Walcott’s season is over because of the knee injury he sustained against Tottenham, the young German might get more chances in the Premier League. On this evidence, he’s ready for the challenge.
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