Bayern Munich have looked to strengthen their midfield further with the addition of Marcel Sabitzer from RB Leipzig, joining up again with former coach Julian Nagelsmann at the Allianz Arena. But what will the Austrian bring to the nine-time defending Bundesliga champions’ game?
Sabitzer’s arrival adds further depth to Bayern’s squad in the centre of midfield. The first-choice duo there is currently Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, with the pair forming a close bond on and off the pitch. Next in the midfield pecking order is Corentin Tolisso, whose frequent injuries have hampered his ability to nail down a place since joining in 2017. And behind him there’s the younger Michael Cuisance and Marc Roca.
Sabitzer will seemingly slot into that list ahead of Tolisso and compete with (or join, depending on the team’s shape) Kimmich and Goretzka in the midfield setup.
While Kimmich has become the deeper-sitting but also the more creative member of the pair, Goretzka has been allowed a free role as a box-to-box midfielder and scores more goals. Sabitzer falls somewhere between the two for most statistical measurements, despite playing for a team that is admittedly still not yet at Bayern’s level.
Watch: The best of Sabitzer in the Bundesliga
In terms of attacking game, Sabitzer averages a goal involvement every 186 minutes across his Bundesliga career, just ahead of Kimmich (187) and Goretzka (196). Bayern’s No.6 is way out in front for chances created in the league in general (415), but Sabitzer (229) has produced more than Goretzka (214). The latter leads the goals tally on 33, followed by their new teammate (32) and then Kimmich (17).
For their all-round midfield play, Kimmich is among the top players in the league for average touches per game (99 over his Bundesliga career), while Goretzka and Sabitzer are very close in their box-to-box roles with 61 and 62 touches respectively. Sabitzer contests on average 18 challenges per game (49% won), compared to 17 for Kimmich (54% won) and 25 by the famously bulked-up Goretzka (49% won).
And in terms of mobility in the centre of the park, we’re talking generally similar figures across the three. Sabitzer averages 7.21 miles and 24.2 sprints per 90 minutes and has a top speed of 21.44 mph; Kimmich: 7.58 miles, 21.2 sprints, 20.57 mph; Goretzka: 7.15 miles, 23.7 sprints, 21.38 mph.
The fourth winger
Sabitzer’s arrival doesn’t just add to the centre of Bayern’s game but also out wide. The club has traditionally always looked to have four genuine wide players – think Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery – who stretch the game in terms of depth and width. The current crop consists of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman. The first of those two are also happy to drift into a No.10 or even centre-forward role.
When Sabitzer started out, he was a genuine right winger. It was in fact under Nagelsmann at Leipzig that he made what many refer to as the ‘Bastian Schweinsteiger move’ of going from a somewhat rough diamond right midfielder to a top-class central midfielder.
The transition came in January 2020 when Diego Demme left RB and the coach decided Sabitzer was the man to plug the gap – also taking on the captain’s armband in the injury-enforced absence of Willi Orban.
But it was as a winger that the 27-year-old originally made his name at the Red Bull Arena – both the one in Leipzig and in Salzburg, where he scored 19 and assisted 16 in 33 league games while on loan in 2014/15.
Sabitzer could therefore easily provide cover out wide, but that may not be needed given the emergence of Jamal Musiala in the final third and the fact that Nagelsmann clearly sees him as a figure for the centre of the pitch – since he was the coach who made the change.
That added threat
There are dangers for opposition defences wherever you look in this Bayern team. If you somehow manage to stay tight on Robert Lewandowski, there’s then the aforementioned wide men capable of waltzing past you. Or the almost uncontainable Thomas Müller drifting into spaces you didn’t even know existed. Then there’s Goretzka coming from deep, Kimmich even deeper – even Alphonso Davies racing up the left.
It’s little surprise Bayern have scored 199 goals across the two previous Bundesliga campaigns, and they are now simply more dangerous with someone like Sabitzer.
Eight goals last season is a very good return for a central midfielder, with only Lewandowski (41), Müller (11) and Gnabry (10) getting more among his new teammates. Those eight made Sabitzer Leipzig’s top scorer in the league for 2020/21. He also hit the woodwork three times. Given Bayern’s peerless attacking ability, he’ll likely be looking to improve on that total this season – and he doesn’t even need to get close to the net to do so.
Three of the seven direct free-kicks Leipzig as a club have scored in the Bundesliga have come from the boot of the Austrian. No player has scored more goals in Germany’s top flight from outside the box since Sabitzer came up with Die Roten Bullen in 2016. Twelve of his 32 in the league have come from further than 18 yards. While last season, only Wolfsburg’s Maximilian Arnold had more shots from outside the area than Sabitzer (43).
And averaging three shots per game all told, the new Bayern man looks an ideal fit in a team not afraid to have a crack when the opportunity arises – as he’s also proven in the UEFA Champions League when he scored a Goal of the Week winner against Zenit St. Petersburg in 2019/20.
As a right winger with a dangerous delivery, he was often compared to David Beckham back in the day, but the central Sabitzer has a lot of Frank Lampard about him. The presence of a genuine holding midfielder (previously Kevin Kampl at Leipzig) allows Sabitzer licence to drive forward and impact proceedings further up the pitch, adding an extra body either in or outside the penalty area, where he’ll shoot either way.
The Nagelsmann way
There is no debating that this is a Nagelsmann signing. The new Bayern coach would have discussed the way he envisions the team with sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, and identified Sabitzer as the player he wants for the way he plays.
Nagelsmann was the one who moved him from the wings into the middle and also named him club captain for last season after he deputised in the role for the second half of 2019/20. The 34-year-old coach therefore obviously has a plan for Sabitzer in his new-look Bayern team, although he has stated that he isn’t planning on starting from scratch with the nine-time defending champions.
But there is clearly a connection there between player and coach. The pair steered Leipzig to runners-up finishes in the Bundesliga and DFB Cup last season. Nagelsmann trusts Sabitzer, and Sabitzer knows what Nagelsmann wants.
With the armband and in a central role, his distance per 90 minutes last season was above his career average – and that despite playing through the pain barrier with some knocks.
“He has a great mentality, is very ambitious and has born responsibility on and off the pitch as RB captain. Our coach knows him very well, also as a leader,” Salihamidzic said on announcing Sabitzer’s arrival, touching on the elements that made him a target for Germany’s most successful club.
As with every Nagelsmann team, there is an element of unknown surrounding exactly what they have planned. Even a confirmed line-up of 11 players is rarely a clear indication of what the coach intends to do. What we do know is that Sabitzer brings everything he wants in a player no matter the system.