Manuel Veth –
RB Leipzig are back on track in the Bundesliga after a 3-1 victory against Schalke 04 on matchday 18. Following the game, however, the focus was on Naby Keïta and Timo Werner. Both had scored goals for Leipzig and Keïta has once again been in the centre of a big transfer story. Almost in the shadow of the two most prominent Leipzig stars was the performance of right-winger Marcel Sabitzer.
The 23-year-old Austrian does not always come to mind when non-Leipzig fans are supposed to name the biggest stars of die Roten Bullen. But the Austrian has been fundamental in the way RB Leipzig play and in the process dethroned Bayern’s David Alaba, who has won the trophy six years in running, winning the Austrian footballer of the year trophy in 2017.
Selected by the ten Austrian Bundesliga head coaches, Sabitzer told the press: “the award means a lot to me, and it shows that I have done a lot of things right. I am very proud of it. The award came of the back off a 2016-17 season in which Sabitzer scored eight goals and four assists in 32 Bundesliga games. But more importantly the Austrian born in Graz has become a leader of a team mostly through his work ethic on the pitch.
Signed by RB Leipzig from Rapid Vienna in 2014 Sabitzer caused some controversy when he first moved to Leipzig. The right-winger had a clause in his contract that allowed him to move abroad for €2 million. The Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg were interested, and in the end, RB Leipzig triggered the escape clause for the winger and then loaned the player straight to RB Salzburg.
Rapid Vienna were less than impressed believing that RB Leipzig used their Red Bull connection to get the deal done for RB Salzburg. But Sabitzer was always in the long-term plans for RB Leipzig and the player did not necessarily believe that Bundesliga 2 football, which is where Leipzig were playing at the time would suit his development.
Sabitzer is a Character Player
Unfortunately for Sabitzer and Leipzig RB failed to reach promotion to the Bundesliga in 2014-15. At the same time, Leipzig were adamant that they wanted Sabitzer to now make a move to Germany to help the club achieve promotion. Following Salzburg’s Austrian championship Sabitzer told the press at the time: “I will move to the club that is best for my development. If I am honest Leipzig is not in my head when it comes to the development of my career.”
Sporting director Ralf Rangnick, who was the acting Leipzig coach during the 2015-16 season, was of a different opinion and forced the move from Salzburg to RB Leipzig. It was a potential time bomb. Developments on the transfer market have underlined the power of the players and Sabitzer could have easily sabotaged this deal. Instead, the Austrian was professional and completed his move helping Leipzig gain promotion by scoring eight goals and five assists during the Bundesliga 2 season.
His goals were undoubtedly crucial to the squad’s ultimate success. But what is even more important than his goal scoring prowess is his work rate, which is second to none among attacking midfielders in the Bundesliga. One could also say that Sabitzer’s role is fundamental to the way Leipzig play.
Since Ralph Hasenhüttl became Leipzig’s coach last season, the squad mostly lines up in a 4-2-2-2 formation with a double pivot in midfield. Ahead of the double pivot—anchored by the attacking minded Naby Keïta—are two attacking midfielders, which at times makes Leipzig’s formation look like a 4-2-4 when the two attacking midfielders push forward to join the attack. It is a very aggressive formation that only works with the two attacking players putting in an extra mile on both ends of the pitch.
What is perhaps the fascinating aspect of Marcel Sabitzer’s role, however, is that he is not a classic winger despite nominally playing on the right-wing in a 4-2-2-2 formation. Instead, the German magazine kicker classified Sabitzer as an attacking midfielder who according to the magazine “has made a big step forward from last season.” As a result, Sabitzer was ranked first among attacking midfielders in the Bundesliga and as the only player in the second highest category international class.
Scoring two goals and four assists in 12 Bundesliga games Sabitzer is not exactly the most prolific player. But it is his mental aspects that make him a game changer. The Austrian is a leader both on and off the pitch, and his strengths are often most apparent when he is not on the pitch. Missing six games with injuries in the first half of the season Leipzig managed to win just one of the games, drawing three times and losing twice.
Sabitzer is the Thread that Keeps it all Together
In fact, without Sabitzer in the squad, Leipzig struggle to keep the attacking fabric of the team together. His work ethic, after all, allows the side to play in a high press with an attacking approach that is almost suicidal at times. Furthermore, his playing style allows central midfielder Naby Keïta to press up the pitch by falling back, filling any hole that is created by Leipzig’s adventurous midfield pivot.
With all this in mind, it is no surprise that some of the big European clubs are closely scouting Sabitzer. The Futbolgrad Network has recently learned that Manchester City are among the teams interested in signing the Austrian. Valued at €18 million by transfermarkt.de Manchester would have to offer far above his valuation for Rangnick, who is considered a tough negotiator to a point where he will ignore offers straight out, to even pick up his phone.
Furthermore, under contract, until 2021 Leipzig are in contract negotiations with the midfielder and are willing to forego their self-imposed salary cap and sign Sabitzer to a deal that would see the Austrian earn far more than the €4.5 million that Leipzig have set as the maximum salary at the club. Leipzig’s Financial Fair Play restrictions mean that Manchester City could of course easily top any money offered by Leipzig. Furthermore, the attacking midfielder would fit perfectly into Pep Guardiola’s system. Recently linked with a transfer of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred, who has often been compared to Naby Keïta, Sabitzer could become the thread that holds together the attacking midfield and midfield pivots in the likes of Ilkay Gündogan as well as Fernandinho—plus Fred should a transfer ever be completed.
Leipzig, of course, have different plans. Rangnick and Hasenhüttl, after all, are well aware of Sabitzer’s strengths and his importance to the side. Hence, although English Premier League sides are undoubtedly interested Leipzig are expected to do everything in their power to keep Sabitzer.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.