One Step Down, Two Steps Up

Posted on

Serge Gnabry had an eventful last summer. He’d just gotten off  a turbulent season where his loan deal with Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion was cut short as a result of both lack of game time and the breakdown in his relationship with Pulis. At the time, Pulis said “Serge has come here to play games but he just hasn’t been for me, at the moment, at that level to play the games. He’s come from academy football and not played much league football.” In Gnabry’s defence, Pulis and West Brom were a bad fit in that the Welshman is a very defensive coach but lacks the patience and competence to efficiently guide an attack minded youngster in need of direction. Pulis is not exactly famed for bringing in players from the youth teams under him. Gnabry was part of the German U 23 side who won a silver medal at the Olympics last year. He also was the joint highest goal scorer thus underlining his credentials. The success in Brazil gave Gnabry a boost in confidence. Returning to Arsenal where he would be entering the final 12 months of his contract, he made it clear he had no intention of renewing the contract. It also didn’t help that his path to the starting 11 was unclear thus reducing the prospects of his making the progression from ingenue to starter like his old teammate, Alex Iwobi. Gnabry opted to return home to Germany on the basis that a change of scenery and a return to his homeland would give him the security needed to break through. To an extent, he has succeeded. In November, he won his first cap for the German senior side in a friendly against Italy. In 22 appearances for Bremen who are effectively a mid to lower table side, he’s scored 10 goals and assisted once. There’s been a long subsisting rumour that Bayern have scouted him as a potential long term replacement for the ageing and creaking duo of  Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. There’s also been talk of Arsenal possibly buying him back ala Manchester United and Paul Pogba.

The story above charts a dilemma that plagues the most prodigious of talents at the highest level: Take the security of being at a big club whilst clearly tucked in the backseat or take the plunge and go level(s) below. This is not to condemn those who take the former option. The way God created the world means that footballers earn comfortably more than the average man but they have a significantly shorter shelf life. Being at a big club enhances one’s prospects. You’ll earn more in basic salary and will be in a stronger position to leverage marketing opportunities. Footballistically, you get the opportunity to play with a better pool of players, facilities and coaching which ordinarily should lead to improvement. In the immediate future though, it could mean less playing time. The role of luck (Or God’s grace as Nigerians call it) cannot be underrated. Take Marcus Rashford whose rise was not purely by design. At the time, Louis van Gaal’s forward line had been obliterated by injuries. Rashford took his opportunity and the rest is history.

On the other hand, what’s the point of staying at a big club and going stale . Young footballers should be reminded to have more confidence in their abilities. Football is built around marriages of convenience. Clubs are only loyal to players as long as it works for them. And odds are that, for a player to make it through a top academy, they’re good enough to make a career in the game. Of late, there’s been a glut of players who were discarded by top clubs and took the step down to find themselves back up. Michael Keane left Manchester United for Burnley and has played enough games at a consistent level that it’s a given he’ll get a move to a top 6 side in the summer. Benik Afobe was farmed on loan after coming through at Arsenal but took the decision to drop down to the Championship with Wolves in 2015. 12 months later, Premiership debutantes Bournemouth made him their club record signing. Romelu Lukaku left Chelsea for Everton and has scored enough goals to suggest he will definitely move for north of 40 million in the summer.

Jose Mourinho giving Luke Shaw instructions
Luke Shaw and Jose Mourinho

This article is motivated by Luke Shaw’s struggles at Manchester United as Jose Mourinho has made it clear he has doubts about his long term future. Shaw suffered a traumatic leg break last season that derailed him from fulfilling his promise. With Mourinho, one is never sure of the design of his rhetoric. Some times, his public admonitions are to serve as motivational tools. At other times, it’s him expressing undisguised disdain. Were one to take the latter theory, is it possible that there’s some residual complexity to the Mourinho- Shaw dynamic after the left back opted against joining Mourinho’s Chelsea (who he grew up supporting) for United (who offered more money than Mourinho thought Shaw merited)? Shaw is on a long term contract at United so could stay put at United despite it being clear he’s not wanted. Or he could take a pay cut and join say Tottenham or Bournemouth, reach peak fitness and display the potential that led to calls when he was at Southampton that whichever team signed him would be getting a competent left back for a decade. If he plays well enough, he’ll be back at the top in no time.