12 players who decided to leave big clubs early – and were much better off for it

Serge Gnabry

Serge Gnabry and Sandro Ramirez are enjoying fine seasons after leaving Arsenal and Barcelona respectively. Kristan Heneage takes a look at a dozen other stars who discovered the grass really was greener after waving goodbye to the big boys

1. Ron-Robert Zieler (Man United)

The German goalkeeper joined Hannover after failing to make the breakthrough under Sir Alex Ferguson

Looking back now, Manchester United may regret their decision to let Zieler leave Old Trafford in 2010. The German goalkeeper joined Hannover after failing to make the breakthrough under Sir Alex Ferguson, with two loan appearances for Northampton Town all he had to show for his time in England. Zieler went on to play almost 200 times in the Bundesliga, before joining Leicester last summer.

Ron-Robert Zieler

Zieler didn't make an appearance for United's senior side during his two years at the club

2. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (PSV)

The Dutchman's quest for regular football saw him join Heerenveen on a permanent basis in 2004

He may be a fan favourite at Ajax, but Huntelaar actually began his career at fierce rivals PSV. Signed in 2000, the striker made his senior bow (and only appearance) under Guus Hiddink before heading out on loan to De Graafschap and AGOVV. The Dutchman's quest for regular football led him to join Heerenveen on a permanent basis in 2004, and 39 goals in 60 games persuaded Ajax to fork out €9m for his services two years later.

3. Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund)

The forward was actually let go by BVB after being considered too skinny in 2006

One of the few Borussia Dortmund players that Bayern Munich haven’t sought to pinch, Reus remains at Signal Iduna Park despite regular links with a move elsewhere. The forward was actually let go by BVB after being considered too skinny in 2006; he soon demonstrated that a lithe physique isn't necessarily a bad thing first at Rot Weiss Ahlen and then Borussia Monchengladbach, before re-signing for Dortmund in 2011.

Marco Reus

Reus spent three years at Borussia Monchengladbach after being let go by Dortmund as a kid

4. Juan Mata (Real Madrid)

Mata's most associated with Valencia in Spain, so it's easy to forget that his league debut came with Real Madrid Castilla in 2006

Mata is best associated with Valencia in Spain, so it's easy to forget that his senior league debut came with Real Madrid Castilla in 2006. Ten goals in 39 matches sparked interest from Valencia, who signed the playmaker by triggering a release clause in his contract. Mata then swapped Spain for England in 2011, joining Chelsea for £23.5m.