Manchester United’s loan for Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern Munich on transfer deadline day was one of the most surprising offers from another record window.
United manager Erik ten Hag was forced into a late foray into the market by news on Tuesday that Christian Eriksen was out for at least three months with an ankle injury, and he quickly set his sights on Sabitzer – a player that the club has been tracking for a long time.
But why has the 28-year-old Austria international been identified as the man to close the gap at Old Trafford and can Bayern’s fourth-choice midfielder flourish as Manchester United look to finish in the top four in the Premier League?
Bayern’s unwanted midfielder
Sabitzer’s loan was only possible because Bayern manager Julian Nagelsmann agreed to let one of his replacement midfielders go.
The decision shows how much Sabitzer’s position at the club has changed. Initially, when Nagelsmann’s move to Bayern began in 2021, he was desperate to bring his former midfielder with him from RB Leipzig.
However, he was never able to claim a place in the starting XI when all of 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 from this summer, it’s clear that Sabitzer has no future for Bayern.
Initially, he intended to stay until the end of the season, but he opportunistically took the opportunity to move to England.
“Sometimes in life you have to make quick and big decisions. From the moment I heard about this opportunity, I knew this was what I needed,” Sabitzer said during announcement of the transfer.
Second chance for Sabitzer?
The next few months offer him a second chance to establish himself among the top midfielders in Europe. It is understood that United scouts have highlighted Sabitzer’s leadership skills in their reports and rated him as a versatile attacking player with quality technical skills.
Sabitzer started his career as a quick and energetic winger, playing for four different Viennese clubs before joining the Red Bull football organization. He made his first appearance for RB Leipzig in 2015 as the wealthy newcomers tried 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 Leipzig managers, being paired in the line behind both forwards with Sweden international Emil Forsberg.
They expected the two to be more than just wingers as they needed to show playing ability and know when to move inside, acting like a number 10 would.
Sabitzer has excelled in this role over the years but, as he was not one of the most explosive players in the Bundesliga, he was occasionally tried in central positions.
Nagelsmann decided to employ Sabitzer mainly as a number six after the winter break in 2020, and one of his favorite pupils immediately performed at a high level in the role of a central forward midfielder, helping Leipzig at half -final of the Champions League in the same year.
Sabitzer can’t be just a little playful
Around this time, more and more clubs were watching Sabitzer. United scouts, among others, would praise the Austrian’s tactical versatility, but doubts remained as to what made him particularly special.
Sabitzer is not a breakthrough passer, nor a consistent one-on-one success. The best he can do is push his team out of their own half and then pick their spots once the team has advanced down the pitch.
That Sabitzer scored five of his nine goals in the 2019-20 season via shots from outside the box was in part a result of his understanding of position 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, as the Dane is able to read the pitch better and expose defensive weaknesses faster than Sabitzer.
Sabitzer, however, can be the dynamic midfielder who constantly presses from behind and is comfortable playing in all areas of the pitch.
Following Leipzig’s £14million transfer to Bayern, he has rarely been 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 Bayern’s midfield anchor, unlike his roles at Leipzig and the Austria national team where he had been the one who dictated possession.
It will be a test for Ten Hag to integrate Sabitzer into his evolving team.
The Austrian doesn’t have the CV to be a leader right away, especially since he’s seen as a temporary replacement for Eriksen.
United made a smart last-minute decision on deadline day and arguably found the best short-term solution available – now Ten Hag must find a way to make it work.