Marcel Sabitzer: Versatile 'leader' inspired by Liverpool great
Manchester United completed the emergency loan signing of Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern Munich on deadline day.
Telegraph Sport takes a look at how and why the deal happened, Sabitzer’s background and what the Austria midfielder is likely to bring to Erik ten Hag’s side.
So, Marcel Sabitzer at Old Trafford, that came out of the blue didn’t it?
United were forced into the market for a midfielder after it became clear on Monday that their influential playmaker Christian Eriksen was going to miss the majority of the season with an ankle injury sustained in Saturday’s 3-1 FA Cup win over Reading following a terrible challenge by Andy Carroll.
Initial investigations suggested Eriksen would be out for around three months - until late April or early May - and with Donny van de Beek already sidelined for the rest of the season and Scott McTominay facing another fortnight out and possibly longer with a muscle injury, the need for a replacement became pressing. Casemiro, Fred and Bruno Fernandes were the only available senior midfielders.
🤕 Christian Eriksen is out for around three months following this challenge last weekend
Major blow for Man Utd#ITVFootball pic.twitter.com/ArMiqj0Lur
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) January 31, 2023
How big a loss is Eriksen?
Ten Hag does not have another midfielder with Eriksen’s unique qualities - the ability to dictate the tempo and possession - and that has been reflected in his playing time. Only Bruno Fernandes has played more minutes of United’s outfield players than the Dane this season.
Although he has started to notably tire in games after an hour - which is unsurprising given his workload only 18 months after suffering a cardiac arrest - his influence remains clear and helps to explain why Ten Hag remains so determined to sign a player like Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong in the summer to enhance his midfield options.
Why only a loan replacement?
Ten Hag’s hands have been relatively tied this month. Having vastly exceeded their budget last summer and with the Glazers tightening belts further as they look to sell the club, United have been restricted to low cost, no obligation loans. Sabitzer’s arrival follows the signing of Netherlands striker Wout Weghorst on loan from Burnley. Ten Hag did not want to make commitments to players beyond the end of this season that could impact his summer plans.
How did the Sabitzer deal unfold?
United were offered a number of players and are also thought to have considered the likes of Houssem Aouar, of Lyon, and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada among others but Sabitzer was considered the best and most attainable option given the tight timeframe and very quickly signalled his desire to come to Old Trafford given his lack of playing at Bayern and excitement at the prospect of a move to United.
Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann, who worked with Sabitzer at RB Leipzig before bringing him to the Bundesliga champions, recognised the midfielder’s wish for more game time and sanctioned the move. Initial contact with Bayern was made on Tuesday morning and what has been described as a “surgical” deal wrapped up in the space of 12 hours. Sabitzer flew by private jet from Munich to Manchester, landing around 8pm before being whisked straight off to United’s Carrington training base to undergo some medical checks and sign the contract which does not include an option or obligation to buy at the end of the season.
United submitted the required “deal sheet” just before 11pm and then had until midnight to finalise the loan. A formal announcement was made at 12.10am on Wednesday.
Why Sabitzer and what sort of player is he?
Ten Hag has prioritised players with strong mentalities and leadership skills and that was the first box Sabitzer ticked. An experienced Austria international with 12 goals in 68 appearances, the 28-year-old previously captained Leipzig, where he spent seven years before joining Bayern in 2021, and is known for a fierce will to win as well as being a popular figure at all his clubs. He also has experience of a big club environment and big games and offers versatility in a variety of positions.
Although primarily an attacking midfielder who says he is at his strongest “in the left attacking midfield role”, primarily in a three, he has operated as a deeper lying midfielder, winger, second striker and full-back. He has a good engine, is industrious, can press, has a powerful shot that has seen him score some spectacular goals from distance and also offers a threat from set-pieces, something United will need with Eriksen now missing.
Although he had always tended to play further forward, Nagelsmann wanted to get him on the ball more at Leipzig and he came to inhabit a sort of hybrid 6/8 role tasked with organising and pulling the strings in midfield but with licence to get forward. Sabitzer was influential when Leipzig beat United 3-2 in Germany in the Champions League group stage in December 2020, a result that sent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side crashing out of the competition.
What happened at Bayern?
Signed late in the 2021 summer window for €16 million, a move which reunited him with his former Leipzig coach Nagelsmann, Sabitzer endured a tough debut season with Bayern and looked like he could be loaned or sold last summer. But he impressed Nagelsmann during pre-season and did start games in central midfield early in the campaign.
Yet Bayern tend to favour a double pivot in midfield and, despite his familiarity with Nagelsmann, Sabitzer never quite looked comfortable in such a set-up, unlike the first choice pairing of Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, who perform similar duties for the German national team. Equally, he also ended up being overlooked for Ryan Gravenberch.
Sabitzer would sometimes find himself coming on as a full-back and barely featured after the resumption following the World Cup.
What is his background?
Sabitzer’s father, Herfried, was a former professional who made six appearances for Austria as a centre-forward in the 1990s and, from Under-12 onwards, his son’s youth team coach for many years. Herfried instilled a strong work ethic in Sabitzer, and would often take his son with him to training sessions at SV Mattersburg at the end of his playing career.
Sabitzer became accustomed to seeing the dressing room atmosphere up close and had the importance of attitude and commitment drilled into him. While his father was not particularly talented, his strong character served him well. Despite growing up in Austria, where he played a lot of tennis and ice hockey, Sabitzer became a Bayern fan largely by virtue of his father watching a lot of their games on television.
His heroes were the Brazilians Giovane Elber and Ze Roberto but he was a keen admirer of the former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard’s style of play.
“He was a more defensive player than me but his mentality was fascinating to me,” Sabitzer said of Gerrard in an interview in 2020. “He always led the line and carried his team. I looked at that and took it all in. I wanted to play the same way.”