This season’s Bundesliga title race could well hinge on the heavyweight Matchday 27 encounter between second-placed RB Leipzig and leaders Bayern Munich, and the outcome of the game itself is likely to depend on which of the team’s midfield schemers – Marcel Sabitzer or Joshua Kimmich – gets the upper hand. With the help of Amazon Web Services, we analyse how the players match up.
Both occupy a deep-lying position in midfield, and while each possesses technical and tactical ability of the highest order, they interpret their roles differently too.
Sabitzer tends to sit a little deeper than Kimmich does, and his average position this season is in the centre circle, just inside his own half. Among the older members of an otherwise youthful Leipzig side, it is perhaps no surprise that head coach Julian Nagelsmann not only made Sabitzer the team captain, but also moved the 27-year-old to one of the most crucial and strategic positions on the pitch, having previously operated as an attacking playmaker or winger.
“He’s been playing as a No.6 and is one of the most stable players in that position in the Bundesliga,” Nagelsmann said. “I’m surprised he adapted to it so well. At first I thought he’d complain about playing further back, but he’s really grown into the position.
Watch: Leipzig's tactics under Nagelsmann
With a top speed of 20.46 mph (32.93 kmh), he is significantly quicker than Kimmich (19.81 mph / 31.89 kmh) as he patrols the space in front of the backline, winning 169 challenges so far, and another 20 aerial duels. And with five yellow cards to his name too, he is clearly not afraid of doing the dirty work when necessary.
Leipzig have the best defensive record in the league this season, and of the 21 goals they have conceded only 13 have been with Sabitzer on the pitch. In fact, Nagelsmann’s side only ship a goal every 115 minutes with the Austria international on the field, but concede more (every 105 minutes) when he’s not. In other words, the Bundesliga’s best defence gets even better when Sabitzer’s around.
Kimmich has a similar effect on Bayern. While Hansi Flick’s charges have been more vulnerable at the back than in previous campaigns, with 35 goals conceded already, only 14 of those have been scored with Kimmich present.
To put it more clearly, Bayern let in a goal every 105 minutes on average with the Germany international playing, but every 41 minutes without him.
Watch: Kimmich the boss
Tenacious in the tackle, Kimmich has won 182 challenges (and in fewer minutes than Sabitzer) and has become so good after switching from right-back, that Flick has tipped him to follow in teammate Robert Lewandowski’s footsteps by being crowned as the world’s best player.
“He’s very accomplished in terms of technique, and is tactical understanding is exceptional,” said the 55-year-old ahead of Bayern’s Matchday 26 assignment with VfB Stuttgart. “I can certainly envisage him being in first place on the [Ballon d’Or ] podium one day. And I’m sure he’s got the ambition to achieve that.”
Goal-getter Sabitzer vs. provider Kimmich
Yet while Sabitzer and Kimmich are similar in terms of their importance to their teams and defensive work, they interpret their roles very differently going forward.
Despite having dropped deeper in recent years, Sabizter remains a fearsome attacking weapon. He has already struck six Bundesliga goals this season, making him Leipzig’s joint-top scorer alongside Emil Forsberg and Christopher Nkunku.
Watch: Sabitzer wins February 2021 Goal of the Month
Not only that, but 12 of Sabitzer’s 30 top-flight goals have been scored from long range – including a stunning February Goal of the Month winner - which is more than any other player in the period since he has been in the Bundesliga (summer 2016).
Furthermore, he also regularly breaks lines and darts into the opposition penalty area himself: his 22 shots off target and 19 on target are an indication of just how frequently Sabitzer gets into scoring positions.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s tired or in great shape, you know exactly what you’re going to get from him: hunger, excellent tactical awareness and the ability to kick-on in the last 20 minutes if you need it,” said Nagelsmann of his captain.
Meanwhile, Kimmich’s average position his slightly further forward than Sabitzer’s, namely on the front edge of the centre circle, a fact probably due to Bayern playing with a higher defensive line.
Although the Bayern No.6 only rarely breaks forward himself, he is an expert passer and his return of 10 assists so far in 2020/21 is second only to teammate Thomas Müller (14), even though he has only made 19 appearances due to illness and injury this term.
“He knows what to do in every situation and he always makes the right decision,” said Flick. “The way he controls the game himself, by playing passes more quickly or by taking the pace out of the game, that’s a quality he has.”
Who will steer their team to victory?
While goals and assists will of course be crucial when the teams meet at the Red Bull Arena on Saturday 3 April, the players’ ability to cajole, rally and lead their teammates out on the pitch will be equally important.
“As you get older you start to think a bit more, and then you have pressure and need to perform,” said Sabitzer last year of his development from talented youngster into a consistent elite-player player. “So I always tell myself: ‘you have to produce the goods’. I’m aware of that. And that’s actually when I play my best.”
Kimmich has the same ability to perform under pressure, with Flick describing him as a “mentality monster” and a player “who never gives up and is always driving everyone on”.
Small details such as these matter at the very top, and Nagelsmann’s side go into the fixture aware they can reduce the gap at the top to just one point if they win. Victory for Bayern, on the other hand, would take them seven clear at the summit and one big step closer to retaining their crown.