Manchester United’s Midfield Fix: Marcel Sabitzer

The saga of Manchester United and deadline day signings continued as United welcomed out-of-favour Bayern Munich midfielder Marcel Sabitzer hours before the January transfer window closed. It seemed United’s transfer business in January had concluded after securing season-long loan deals for goalkeeper Jack Butland and centre forward Wout Weghorst. The Red Devils were forced late into action in the January transfer window after a reckless challenge from ex-Liverpool player Andy Carroll on midfielder Christian Eriksen in the FA Cup 4th round that saw the United midfielder leave the stadium on crutches.

After assessing Eriksen, United released a statement: “While investigations are continuing, initial assessments indicate that Eriksen is likely to be out until late April or early May.”

Eriksen, a key asset of Ten Hag’s system and one of the most consistent performers for United this season, was going to be a significant miss, but it was no time for United to sulk instead, find a quick replacement which they found in the Austrian international Sabitzer who has fallen in the pecking order behind Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goreztka at Bayern Munich.

After a cameo in United’s win over Palace, it was known Sabitzer was going to make his full United debut against Leeds at home as Ten Hag’s side’s midfield wounds were further deepened, at least for the next three matchdays when referee Andre Marriner showed United’s £70 million summer recruit Casemiro a straight red in a win over Crystal Palace. Manchester United’s decision to not appeal the red card means Casemiro will miss games home and away to Leeds and against Leicester at Old Trafford. With Casemiro suspended and injuries to Scott McTominay and Eriksen United’s latest recruit, Sabitzer will be thrown into the fray much quicker than Ten Hag might have originally planned.

It was always going to be fascinating to see if Sabitzer could keep up with the intensity of the Premier League, as the player has only started 15 games in the last two seasons combined. This season at Bayern Munich, Sabitzer has seen 628 minutes of total action in the 15 matches he has featured in, averaging just 42 minutes a game. There is no doubt that his fitness will be put to a full test. However, little is known about the Austrian international to United fans and the Premier League. Sabitzer certainly adds quality to the United midfield, as is evident from his time in the Bundesliga, especially at RB Leipzig. We will see what qualities United’s short-term fix in the midfield will bring to the squad.

Putting in context Marcel Sabitzer’s current season in the Bundesliga, where he has just bagged a solitary goal and assist in 15 appearances; however, this is mainly down to the fact that Sabitzer has not featured enough for the Bundesliga champions this season. Sabitzer averages 2.15 total shots per 90, which is good for any player in his position, irrespective of the league and has a powerful right foot that can trouble any goalie. The Austrian international has a higher pass completion percentage (86.3%) and passes attempted (66.78) per 90 compared to all the options United have in midfield in the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Eriksen, Fred, Casemiro, and McTominay this season. 

Eriksen and Sabitzer do not have a burst of speed to dribble past opponents, but Sabitzer’s ability to play progressive passes (7.45 per 90) will be vital for United to move the ball up the field, especially in the absence of Casemiro. What stands out with this is his ability to make vital interceptions (1.43) and tackles (3.87) which will offer much-required assistance to Fred, who has thrived alongside Casemiro. Fred is thriving in the number 8 role lately. Fred has never really convinced as a defensive midfielder, and it was Sabitzer who Ten Hag trusted with the number 6 role in a high-intensity 2-2 draw against Leeds at Old Trafford.

United did not make the ideal start to the game after conceding just after 56 seconds on the clock and were trailing 2-0 at the hour mark before United staged a dramatic comeback to rescue a point. Sabitzer was marshalled well as Leeds pressed with two banks of three, making it challenging for Sabitzer to get on the ball initially and for United to find an outlet as the home team looked to play out from the back. United’s midfield was often left open on the turnovers, with acres of space for Leeds United’s players to exploit, especially in the opening exchanges. Marcel Sabitzer looked out of position in a number 6 role. However, it seems likely he will continue in that role until Casemiro is available again. Despite the start, Sabitzer started to impose himself on the game and had 62 touches of the ball and a passing accuracy of 83% in the 82 minutes he featured. The Austrian international played three key passes, created one big chance, and had a shot on target alongside making one block and interception each.

Sabitzer made a positive impression in front of the home fans but was offered little help by his midfield partner Fred. The Brazilian had a regressive night, gave away the ball numerous times, and made no meaningful runs going forward. However, what must excite United fans should be the prospect of seeing Sabitzer paired alongside Casemiro after games against today’s opponent and Leicester.

After the Bayern Munich midfielder has settled in and is familiar with what Ten Hag wants from him, signs are looking positive. With Sabitzer and especially Casemiro’s ability to win the ball back in the middle of the park combined with the ability to move the ball towards the opposition’s goal, this new look United midfield will bolster their chances for qualifying for a Champions League spot. Both players possess an efficient long ball in their locker to use Marcus Rashford’s pace on turnovers. United will surely solidify a Champions League spot and might end the season with the Carabao Cup, in which they will play the final on 26th February against Newcastle.