It had been a rather frustrating few weeks for Serge Gnabry, with the winger having loitered in that all too familiar territory that exists between the first-team and the U21 side.
He had been on the bench for several recent first-team fixtures, but, prior to last night, had not started a game at any level since delivering a virtuoso performance for the second-string against Aston Villa on November 12th.
There had been murmurings beforehand that Arsene Wenger was considering handing Gnabry a start against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup, but, despite the injury situation currently engulfing the club, it was still something of a surprise to see the young German included in the starting line-up, particularly with his vastly more experienced compatriot Lukas Podolski remaining on the bench.
The decision to start Gnabry, however, proved to be an inspired one. The 18 year old was full of direct running, was not afraid to use his array of skills to his advantage, and played a delightful pass into the path of Santi Cazorla who opened the scoring.
Last night’s performance saw Gnabry draw much acclaim from many supporters and journalists, and it seems likely that his impressive showing will go some way towards scotching rumours that he could head out on loan before the end of the month.
Wenger will certainly not want to let Gnabry leave, albeit temporarily, in a hurry, although it is questionable just how much first-team game time he will receive at Arsenal with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a player rather similar in style to Gnabry but possessing far more experience of Premier League and Champions League football, due to return to full training tomorrow.
Gnabry has now made a dozen appearances for the Arsenal first-team, eight of which have come this season. He was impressive away to Swansea City, where he opened the scoring with a fine strike, and also at Crystal Palace, where his directness enabled him to win a penalty before he later succumbed to injury.
Gnabry also featured as a late substitute in games against Manchester United, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, suggesting that Wenger is unafraid to throw him into battle against supremely talented opponents. There were some occasions last season, particularly in the Capital One Cup tie against Reading, when Gnabry failed to make the most of his opportunities to impress, but the same can certainly not be said about his display last night.
It has been clear for some time that this is a player who, at the age of 18, is well above all levels of youth team football, yet he is still some way from establishing himself as a regular for the Arsenal first-team.
A loan spell may well follow in the future, but, in all likelihood, that possibility will now not occur until next season. For the time being, Gnabry has demonstrated that he could provide a useful option as Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge reaches its climax.
This performance will also re-ignite the debate as to who is the Premier League’s most impressive young winger, with United’s Adnan Januzaj and Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling also contenders in that regard.
It is important to not get carried away and it must be realised that, given that he is still in such an early stage of his development, Gnabry will not be able to replicate last night’s performance each time he is called upon for the first-team. What it did demonstrate, though, is that the Germany U19 international is unfazed by the big occasion, and, in the second half of the season, that could prove to be a very useful attribute indeed.