Goals, assists, praise from all quarters and a place in the UEFA Champions League squad of the year: perhaps the only surprising thing about Marcel Sabitzer being named the new RB Leipzig captain is that it has taken this long.
Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann confirmed on Sunday that the Austrian midfielder is to be the team’s new skipper, taking over the armband from centre-back Willi Orban following a vote among the players ahead of the new season.
It is a fitting recognition of the growing status of the 26-year-old, who has developed into one of the best midfielders in Europe in recent years, helping Leipzig to a third-placed finish in the Bundesliga in 2019/20, as well as into the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Watch: All of Sabitzer's goals and assists in 2019/20
“Sabi frequently led the team onto the pitch as captain last term owing to Willi’s injury,” Nagelsmann said of the Austria international, who captained Leipzig in 13 of their 17 league outings in the second half of last season. “He showed in decisive games that he’s willing to shoulder responsibility. [Being voted captain] is evidence of his good performances.”
And boy were there plenty of those. Able to play wide on the right, centrally in attacking midfield or, as was often the case in 2019/20, further back in a more holding role, Sabitzer sent out a statement of his intent for the season on Matchday 1, scoring one and providing three assists as Leipzig ran out 4-0 winners away to Union Berlin.
And it was no one-off. The Leipzig No.7 also played the full 90 minutes in both draws against treble-winners Bayern Munich, helping Die Roten Bullen become the only team not to lose to the Reds in 2019/20. He posted a goal and an assist in Leipzig’s club-record 8-0 thrashing of Mainz in November 2019, scored crucial goals in both wins over Zenit St. Petersburg in the Champions League group stage – including one stunning strike that ended up second in the competition’s Goal of the Season vote – and provided an exquisite defence-splitting, outside-of-the-boot pass to pave the way for Tyler Adams’ winner in the quarter-finals against Atletico Madrid.
A UEFA panel of technical observers including Roberto Martinez, Phil Neville and Gareth Southgate were suitably impressed, and named Sabitzer in the official 23-man Champions League squad of the season.
Furthermore, the midfielder enjoyed his best Bundesliga campaign ever, contributing nine goals and seven assists from 30 starts, with Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg Leipzig’s only outfield players to feature more frequently last term.
He clearly has the quality, then. But Nagelsmann was quick to highlight other attributes when asked why Sabitzer was the one constant in Leipzig’s hard-running midfield and attacking positions: “It’s because of his reliability. He always performs at the same high level.
"With some players, you never know if you can count on them. Sometimes they’re good enough to play for Real Madrid, and the next game they’re not even good enough for the reserves. [Sabitzer] stands out because he always plays well and is completely stable.”
Nagelsmann’s definition of what “playing well” actually means offers further insight into why Sabitzer’s range of talents is perfect to lead the team as he goes into his sixth season at the Red Bull Arena.
“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.”
While Nagelsmann admitted that Sabitzer isn’t the typical chest-thumping type of captain, describing him as “not a big talker, not a loud player”, his willingness to always put the team first offers more evidence of the wisdom behind the decision.
“In 2018/19 he played in a more attacking position and despite having a lot of chances he didn’t score much,” the 33-year-old tactician said.
“Now he’s been playing as a No.6 and is one of the most stable players in that position in the Bundesliga. 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.”
No complaints, just growth and consistent top-class displays: Sabitzer himself is unlikely to ever shout about it, but he won't go unnoticed by the wider public for much longer.