Manchester United’s loan move for Bayern Munich’s Marcel Sabitzer on transfer deadline day was one of the more surprising deals of another record-breaking window.
United manager Erik ten Hag was forced into a late foray into the market by Tuesday’s news that Christian Eriksen was out for at least three months with an ankle injury, and he quickly set his sights on Sabitzer – a player the club has been tracking for a long time.
But why has the 28-year-old Austrian international been identified as the man to plug the gap at Old Trafford and can Bayern’s fourth-choice midfielder flourish as Manchester United look to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League?
Bayern’s unwanted midfielder
The loan move for Sabitzer was only possible because Bayern manager Julian Nagelsmann agreed to let one of his back-up midfielders go.
The decision shows how Sabitzer’s standing within the club has changed. Initially, when Nagelsmann’s stint at Bayern started in 2021, he was adamant about bringing his former midfielder with him from RB Leipzig.
However, he was never able to claim a spot in the starting XI when all his direct competitors for the number six role were available. Ultimately, he fell behind Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Jamal Musiala in the pecking order.
With the Bundesliga giants securing the services of Leipzig midfielder Konrad Laimer this summer, it is clear that Sabitzer does not have a Bayern future.
Initially, he intended to stay until the end of the season, but he opportunistically grabbed the chance to make a move to England.
“Sometimes in life you have to make quick and important decisions. From the moment I heard about this opportunity I knew it was right for me,” Sabitzer said as the transfer was announced.
Second chance for Sabitzer?
The next few months offers him a second chance to establish himself among the top-tier midfielders in Europe. It is understood that United’s scouts highlighted in their reports Sabitzer’s leadership skills and categorised him as a versatile attacking player with quality technical skills.
Sabitzer began his career as a quick-footed and energetic winger, playing for four different Vienna clubs before joining the Red Bull football organisation. He made his first appearance for RB Leipzig in 2015, as the wealthy newcomers were trying to secure promotion to the Bundesliga.
He quickly became an integral part of Ralf Rangnick and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s 4-2-2-2 system under both managers at Leipzig, being paired in the line behind the two strikers with Swedish international Emil Forsberg.
They expected the two to be more than just straightforward wingers, as they had to show playmaking abilities and a sense for when to move inside, acting like a number 10 would.
Sabitzer excelled in that role over the years, but, since he wasn’t among the most explosive players in the Bundesliga, he was occasionally tried out in central positions.
Nagelsmann decided to employ Sabitzer primarily as a number six after the winter break in 2020, and one of his favourite pupils immediately performed on a high level in the role of a forward-driving centre midfielder, helping Leipzig to the Champions League semi-final in the same year.
Sabitzer cannot just be a bit player
Around that time, more and more clubs were keeping an eye on Sabitzer. United’s scouts, among others, would praise the tactical versatility the Austrian possessed, but doubts remained as to what made him particularly special.
Sabitzer is not a line-breaking passer, nor consistently successful in one-on-ones. What he can do best is to push his team out of their own half and then pick his spots once the team has advanced down the field.
The fact that Sabitzer scored five of his nine goals in the 2019-20 season via shots from outside the box was in part the result of his positional understanding and movement behind the attacking lines.
He might have more in common with United midfielder Donny van de Beek, who is currently recovering from a knee injury, than Eriksen, because the Dane is able to read the field better and expose defensive weaknesses faster than Sabitzer.
Sabitzer, though, can be the dynamic midfielder who is constantly pressuring from behind and comfortable playing in all zones on the pitch.
Following the £14m move from Leipzig to Bayern, he was only rarely able to shine – making just seven starts for the Germans this season.
He had a string of starting appearances in the second half of the 2021-22 season but would never be the anchor of Bayern’s midfield, contrary to his roles at Leipzig and the Austria national team where he had been the one dictating possession.
It will be a test for Ten Hag to integrate Sabitzer into his evolving side.
The Austrian does not possess the CV to be a leader from the start, even less so because he is considered a temporary replacement for Eriksen.
United made a clever last-minute decision on deadline day and arguably found the best short-term solution available – now Ten Hag has to find a way to make it work.