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Marcel Sabitzer: What Manchester United can expect

  • February 01, 2023

Marcel Sabitzer’s only previous appearance at Old Trafford was a disaster.

Introduced just after the hour mark with RB Leipzig 1-0 down to Manchester United in a Champions League group game in October 2020, the Austrian midfielder was then directly culpable for two further goals in what ended up a 5-0 thrashing – RB’s highest ever defeat.

Now, after moving to United on loan from Bayern Munich until the end of the season, Sabitzer will be hoping his next appearance at the “Theatre of Dreams” – potentially against Nottingham Forest in a League Cup semifinal second leg on Wednesday evening – will be less of a nightmare.

“Sometimes in life you have to make quick and important decisions,” said the 28-year-old in a statement.

“I am a competitive player, I feel that I am at my peak as a player, and that I can contribute a lot of experience and energy to the squad. From the moment I heard about this opportunity I knew it was right for me.”

Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig) and Marcus Rashford (Manchester United) in action in the Champions League in 2020
Marcel Sabitzer’s last visit to Old Trafford ended in a 5-0 defeat to Marcus Rashford’s Manchester UnitedImage: motivio/ZB/picture alliance

Marcel Sabitzer: ‘Top player’ or ‘luxury transfer’?

In seven years at RB Leipzig, Sabitzer played a pivotal role in securing promotion to the Bundesliga and establishing the club in the Champions League, contributing 52 goals and 42 assists in 229 games across all competitions, from a variety of positions across the midfield.

Combative, physical and in possession of a powerful long-range shot, he was voted Austrian player of the year in 2017 ahead of serial winner David Alaba, and was made RB Leipzig captain in 2020. However, since following coach Julian Nagelsmann to Bayern Munich in 2022, Sabitzer has struggled to establish himself, much to the consternation of agent Roger Wittmann.

“The lad has a killer character, so it’s the most uncomfortable thing in the world when he’s not playing,” Wittmann told Sky Deutschland this week. “No-one can accuse Marcel of lacking effort in training or not having the will to win … it’s certainly not down to his attitude or ability.

“Julian [Nagelsmann] absolutely wanted him and [Sabitzer] turned down the offer a five-year contract [in Leipzig] because Bayern absolutely wanted him. He’s not just any old player; he’s a top player.”

But just two goals and two assists in 54 appearances (of which only two over 90 minutes) have seen Sabitzer drop behind Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller and even youngsters Jamal Musiala and Ryan Gravenberch in Bayern’s midfield pecking order.

“I think he was a luxury transfer, and he wasn’t cheap,” said former Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge last year. “He’s not improved the squad as we might have expected.”

With fellow Austrian midfielder Konrad Laimer set to follow in Sabitzer’s footsteps from Leipzig to Bayern in the summer, Sabitzer’s options at the Allianz Arena appear limited. And with United also short on central options after Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen was injured at the weekend, a short-term loan move appears to suit both parties.

“Marcel is a player that we have watched for a long time,” said United’s football director, John Murtough. “The opportunity arose quickly, and we knew that he was someone with the ability and character to make an impact. He adds further quality to our squad and experience to the dressing room.”

Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig) and Luke Shaw (Manchester United) challenge for the ball in a Champions League game in 2020
Sabitzer showed his true quality in the return fixture against United, leading RB Leipzig to a 3-2 winImage: motivio/ZB/picture alliance

Sabitzer: a product of the Red Bull school

Sabitzer himself is no stranger to loan moves after being at the center of a controversial deal back in 2014 which has had far-reaching consequences for German football – and perhaps also for Sabitzer himself.

With a buy-out clause in his Rapid Vienna contract only valid for moves abroad and thus preventing a move to direct Austrian rival, namely Red Bull Salzburg, Sabitzer signed a four-year deal with RB Leipzig, then in Germany’s second division, in summer 2014, only to be immediately loaned back to RB Salzburg in Austria.

Sabitzer returned to Leipzig a year later, one of a total of 20 players who have been transferred between the two supposedly independent Red Bull-backed franchises in the last decade.

For critics, the move was symptomatic of the frequent circumvention of regulations made possible by Red Bull’s multi-club ownership structure, giving both RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg an advantage in the transfer market and distorting the competition – one of the central criticisms of the whole set-up.

But for Sabitzer, it saw him well-schooled in Red Bull’s high-octane pressing style, with he himself instrumental in winning possession and executing rapid transitions through midfield. When that intense style of play saw RB Leipzig hit a glass ceiling under sporting director and head coach Ralf Rangnick, Sabitzer welcomed the different approach brought by Nagelsmann in 2019.

“In previous years, it was all very much about work off the ball, pressing and gegenpressing, but [Nagelsmann] has brought in more creative elements,” he told in-house club media in 2020. “He certainly doesn’t want to abandon pressing, but we’re now calmer on the ball and can play our way out of difficult situations better.”

Indeed, two months after that 5-0 thrashing at Old Trafford, Sabitzer showed his true ability when he starred in the return fixture, brilliantly helping set up two early goals as RB Leipzig won 3-2 and knocked United out of the Champions League. It was that more refined approach which brought Nagelsmann to Bayern’s attention, and saw Sabitzer accompany him.

Question marks

But the 28-year-old is not the first player to come through the Red Bull system and excel at RB Leipzig before struggling to fit in elsewhere.

Naby Keita and Timo Werner were also key cogs in the RB Leipzig side which initially took the Bundesliga by storm under Ralph Hasenhüttl, but both underwhelmed after switching the highly-structured and one-dimensional Red Bull environment for the upper reaches of the Premier League.

On the touchline, too, former Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig coach Jesse Marsch has struggled to adapt his stringent philosophy to Leeds United. And although not from the same background, former United head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical approach also proved similarly limited.

Under his permanent successor, Erik ten Hag, United are a much more rounded outfit, and Sabitzer could represent a solid addition to a thin squad still competing on four fronts.

For Sabitzer, it certainly can’t work out any worse than his last trip to Old Trafford.

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