Christian Eriksen has not been Manchester United’s best player this season but the injury that has ruled him out until late April soon brought home the fact that he is among their most important. It is difficult to replace the Dane from within.
Against Nottingham Forest on Wednesday evening, Casemiro took on that creative mantle once more, setting up Wout Weghorst for the best chance of the first half and playing the key pass for the opening goal in the second. But even the Brazilian needs some help.
Surprise deadline day arrivals are sometimes characterised as panic buys but the arrival of Marcel Sabitzer on loan from Bayern Munich was logical and essential. He can help solve the problem because he possesses qualities that are required in a crucial position.
After the misstep of playing Eriksen as a forward on debut in the home defeat to Brighton, Erik ten Hag redeployed him in a midfield role. From there, United have been able to utilise his creativity in the final third while also relying on him in the build-up phase.
“We put him a little bit deeper on the pitch as he plays in a ‘six’ and an ‘eight’ role where he has lots of freedom,” Ten Hag explained earlier this season. “We tell him which spaces he has to be in but also he has to adapt to that. I think he can make a game for you.”
There was a time when that role would have been alien to Sabitzer. He enjoyed success further forwards at Red Bull Salzburg, scoring 27 goals in all competitions in his final season in his native Austria, before finding fame in Leipzig coming inside from the right flank.
At Euro 2016, he was even his country’s striker. Thomas Janeschitz was Austria’s assistant coach at that tournament and knows Sabitzer well having first worked with him at U17 level. He has followed this evolution into someone capable of covering for Eriksen.
“I had him very early on before later working together with the national team and at the very start I brought him in from the side. But I think that his best position now is playing behind the forwards, maybe as a No 8 or a No 10,” Janeschitz tells Sky Sports.
“He has very good technical ability on the ball and he is able to score goals because of his shooting prowess from outside the box. His strengths are still in the offensive game but he has also developed well in his defensive work. He is able to run a lot.”
That is reflected in his unusual blend of statistics. He ranks fourth for tackles per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga this season but is also fourth for passing accuracy in the final third of the pitch and in the top six for completed passes per 90 minutes in that attacking zone.
It helps to explain why he is suited to such a demanding role. Schooled in the philosophy espoused by the Red Bull clubs, Sabitzer knows that hard running is non-negotiable. But Bayern recognised that he is capable of high quality in possession of the ball too.
That was a process that began under Julian Nagelsmann, his coach at both Leipzig and Bayern. Initially, he saw Sabitzer as a forward before eventually appreciating the need to get him on the ball more. The dynamism remains but he is a better player now.
Janeschitz regards him as a new breed of Austrian player in that respect. “There was a big change in the development and education of young players here and he was at the start of that. Before, we prepared them for the Austrian league but that was not enough.”
Sabitzer’s intelligence and technique could easily see him cover for Bruno Fernandes and the forwards if the situation demands it and Ten Hag prefers to go with Fred alongside Casemiro. He fills a gap left by the serious injury to Donny van de Beek as well as Eriksen.
“While best as a No 8 or No 10 because he likes to have the ball and play good passes,” says Janeschitz, “he is able to play many positions. This is also a strength of his. But wherever he plays, the most important quality he has is the ability to read the game.”
Ten Hag on Sabitzer
“I know the player a long time from Salzburg, and especially Leipzig, he performed fantastic. I expect the same here. He has a great attitude, he is the right age. I am sure this opportunity will motivate him and he will perform for us.”
A loan signing, the onus is on Sabitzer to make an instant impact at Old Trafford. At 28, he has the character to take on that responsibility. “He does not want to lose, which is always a good characteristic, and he is very ambitious,” adds Janeschitz.
“When I first worked with him for the national team we had some older players there but after that he made the step to become a leading player. Along with David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic, he was one of the strong leaders within the team.”
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Expect him to take on that role quickly, welcoming the opportunity to feel important once more. Thirty-four of his 54 appearances for Bayern came as a substitute but Sabitzer has been at his best when the team needs him. At United, that need is more obvious.
“That is why I think this is a good decision for him. He had some problems at Bayern and did not play as much as he expected. Because of the injuries at Manchester United, he will get the minutes that he wants. I hear the coach likes him so it is good for everybody.
“The pressure is high but I think he is able to take on the challenge.”