Arsenal, Serge Gnabry and Remedial Chaos Theory
"Life has gone to hell, Abed! This is real! Look at us! Look at me!" - Evil Britta Perry
Remedial Chaos Theory is the fourth episode of the third season of US television series Community. Even by the show's own meta standards, it is an extremely high concept endeavour, stretching what is essentially a few minutes of action over an entire episode and a number of dimensions. As the title suggests, it plays with the idea of chaos theory and how the smallest changes to any given scenario can have a huge impact on how things ultimately turn out.
Once Jeff Winger, the nominal lead of both the ensemble cast and fictional study group, throws a die in the air to decide who gets up to collect a pizza delivery, he inadvertently opens up a number of different timelines. Each timeline has its own calamities and implications, with each character reacting and growing in different ways.
Watching Bayern Munich this season, particularly in the Champions League, some Arsenal fans must feel like they're stuck in the darkest timeline. Serge Gnabry has been fundamental to the Bavarians' success with his dynamic play, wonderful technique, excellent decision-making, and most importantly a consistent glut of goals. In many ways he looks like the complete modern forward. As Gooners everywhere are constantly reminded on social media and beyond, this is the same Gnabry who was a peripheral figure at the Emirates for the best part of five years before being sold for less than £5m to Werder Bremen in 2016. Practically every time he does anything of note, the name of Arsenal is summoned for another round of ridicule.
The general source of mirth is two-fold. That Arsenal foolishly let such a talented player go, and that they are now without such an impressive and seemingly fully-formed attacking threat. The first part is slightly disingenuous, or at least ignorant. It was in fact the player who wanted to leave Arsenal and not the other way round. "We didn't want to get rid of Gnabry, we wanted to keep him," explains Arsene Wenger. "But he was in the last year of his contract. We were close to extending his contract but finally he changed his mind and went to Werder Bremen." It seems the young German was desperate for the regular first-team football that had eluded him at the Emirates due to a combination of injury, fitness issues and competition for places. Arsenal didn't 'Britta' the situation up at all - indeed Wenger always rated the player extremely highly.
In terms of Arsenal doubly regretting the sale because of the phenomenal player Gnabry has ultimately become, it is true only in a vague hypothetical sense. As Community has taught us, we cannot assume that different timelines will diverge at one point and then go on to converge again at another. To suggest that the player lining up against PSG in the Champions League final would be the very same player now had he stayed at Arsenal is pure folly and just a bad cut-and-paste job. It ignores the immense physical, mental and technical developments that Gnabry will have gone through in Germany at both the Weserstadion and the Allianz Arena. It's like claiming that Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira would have become the same world-class players had they stayed at Juventus and Milan respectively, rather than benefitting from the trust and tutelage of Arsene Wenger and a completely different league more suited to their particular attributes.
It is a game that football fans love to play: a strange sort of shoulda woulda coulda of sliding doors moments. Why didn't Chelsea keep Kevin De Bruyne? Why did Chelsea let Mohamed Salah go? Well, perhaps Chelsea are a bad example due to their unusual, almost factory-style turnover of footballing talent. But even with those two players - there is no guarantee they'd have developed into anything like the world-class talents they are today had they stayed at Stamford Bridge. So much of any player's progress centres around confidence, the internal dynamics within a club, and pecking order. A relatively shy De Bruyne could have got lost in the perpetual sea of change and strong characters that is Chelsea Football Club. Similarly, maybe Salah needed to go away and become a pivotal player somewhere else, rather than a nervous and peripheral figure in London.
Of course talent is talent, and the cream always rises to the top one way or another. Arsenal famously missed out on Cristiano Ronaldo when he was still at Sporting Lisbon. It is a regret that Wenger harbours to this very day. But the Portuguese would have become a different player at Arsenal than he became at Manchester United. Perhaps better, perhaps worse - but different and obviously still world-class. How he would have developed under Wenger, living in London, with different teammates, different expectations and a very different environment would absolutely have forged him in a different manner. Barring injury, the only definite is that it would have massively benefitted Arsenal at United's expense - instead of the opposite scenario. It would also have had a knock-on effect as to whom United would have signed instead. Just as they signed Ronaldo in the first place because they missed out on Ronaldinho.
In the case of Serge Gnabry, his decision to leave Arsenal when he did has been resoundingly vindicated. It perhaps wasn't in the best interests of the club at the time, but it clearly worked out for the player. It is a pity for Arsenal only in terms of the player that Gnabry could have become at the Emirates, rather than the player he is now at Bayern. They are separate and different, and living on alternate timelines. Whether this is indeed the darkest timeline depends on your point of view - but it's a little unfair to criticise Arsenal in regards to Gnabry just because you see his value now. Cool? Cool, cool.