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ISSUE #25: Marcel Sabitzer: Transfer Flop or a Victim of Circumstance?
"It's a childhood dream come true, that's for sure. Having always run around proudly in my Bayern kit as a young lad, it's the ultimate feeling. I dreamed of FC Bayern, and back then it was very distant. Now I can't stop grinning."
Those were the words of Marcel Sabitzer: an established force in German football, and the latest addition to FC Bayern’s talent-laden roster.
Since arriving in Germany in 2015, Sabitzer quickly grew to become a prominent figure in RB Leipzig’s rise up the footballing pyramid. The Austrian international joined the upstart project in the second-tier, and left RB 7-years later as club captain competing in the Champions League.
Throughout his almost decade of ripening in Saxony, Sabitzer went from an energetic forward with raw and unfiltered talent, to one of the most reliable midfielders on the continent, promising a bounty of important goals and an imposing all-around presence. After regularly entertaining offers from top sides in Europe, it was only when the biggest club in the country took notice that Sabitzer finally took the leap of faith away from his second Red Bull home.
For Sabitzer it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream to don the shirt of his former heroes Zé Roberto and Giovane Élber, but for RB Leipzig the €15m fee was small consolation for a player with the potential to alter the tide of the Bundesliga title race.
Not only did Sabitzer’s wealth of experience help offset the recent departures of David Alaba, Jérôme Boateng, and Javi Martínez, - a trio which had combined for 1,062 appearances and 27 titles at FC Bayern - but the 58-time Austrian international would finally fill a gaping hole left by Thiago Alcântara’s exit the previous summer.
Following the Spaniard’s move to Liverpool, FC Bayern struggled to maintain the fitness of Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka throughout an entire campaign. The midfield duo were required to play through thick and thin as potential replacements in Corentin Tolisso and Marc Roca either dealt with injury setbacks, or failed to live up to the requisite standards.
With Hansi Flick’s side bowing out of the DFB-Pokal and Champions League in matches Goretzka wasn’t deemed fit for, the arrival of a competitive replacement now had the potential to transform Der Rekordmeister’s ability to once again compete in three competitions.
Add to this Sabitzer’s experience under Julian Nagelsmann, the midfielder’s childhood affinity to the club, and his insatiable desire to win a first title on German soil, and you quickly had all the ingredients for the makings of the next transfer master-stroke at the Allianz Arena.
Or so we thought… because just over 6-months later we’ve still yet to see a hint of the form which made Sabitzer such a dominating force in Leipzig.
Having gone the full 90 minutes on just one occasion, and still yet to get off the mark for either goals or assists, it’s fair to say that Naglesmann’s former captain has failed to deliver anywhere near the transformative effect many had hoped for.
Even with the lengthy absences of both Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka- the pair have missed a combined 24 matches - Sabitzer has underwhelmed at Bayern, routinely looking out of his depth in matches he would have eased through last season.
To understand how one of the best midfielders in Europe has suddenly found his form in freefall, we need to go back to the day he was signed.
Deadline Day Disasters
There are few things which a fanbase enjoys more than a late-summer signing. A statement of intent in the dying embers of a transfer window.
Whether these deals actually pay off though is a whole different story, with the player in question thrown into an unfamiliar environment, whilst the club gives him little time to adapt before decisive matches roll around.
For Bayern, it’s been a definitive no in recent seasons.
Der Rekordmeister rarely makes late moves, and when they do, they almost never recuperate the value they had hoped for. In fact, across the last 12 transfer windows (January included), Bayern have only made 6 signings in the final week, with not one player going on to feature in more than 30% of available minutes in their first season at the club.
As disheartening as it may be for fans determined to see their club remain active, there simply isn’t a basis for last-minute transfers in the entire Bundesliga either. Just taking the 2021/22 season in isolation provides us with a startling view of how limited the impact has been from signings confirmed in the final week of the window.
Of the 23 deals completed between August 25th and August 31st, only Sebastian Griesbeck of bottom side Greuther Fürth has featured in more than 60% of his club’s total minutes, whilst the vast majority of Bundesliga signings completed in the last week of the window fall definitively in the low impact category.
For a short-term stopgap or long-term development project this period can still be useful, but to bring in a player of Sabitzer’s caliber with the expectation that he immediately slots into a dominant side, and improves the level, simply isn’t based on any logic.
A second significant factor has to do with the European Championships last summer, a tournament in which Sabitzer played all 390 minutes until Austria’s elimination in the round of 16. The toll of an international tournament can leave a lasting impact on an individual's long-term fitness (just ask Fernando Torres), but Euro 2020 was even an exception to that norm.
Having been added into the competitive calendar after one of the most condensed seasons in history, the grueling conditions and widespread travel left players completely depleted long after audience attention had shifted back to the club scene.
Between Sabitzer’s first Bundesliga appearance in the 2020/21 campaign, and the final whistle of Austria’s Euro 2020 exit, Sabitzer had accumulated an astounding 48-matches for club and country - a competitive fixture every 5.13 days!
Though world-class recovery gadgets, and a scientific diet allow individuals like Sabitzer to push to incredible limits, even he isn't immune to long-term burnout after months performing at the absolute peak of mental and physical effort.
Ordinarily, this is something FC Bayern have factored into their transfer activity. Der Rekordmeister is rarely caught spending big on individuals returning from international competition, and, if there is a unique opportunity such as Renato Sanches in 2016, then Bayern completes the deal early in the transfer window to allow for the requisite time to acclimate to new surroundings.
In fact, in windows directly following the 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup Bayern didn’t complete a single signing after the transfer period opened on July 1st, despite being more than happy to sell 7 players in the subsequent weeks.
So, whilst the acquisition of Sabitzer may have made sense on paper, the last-minute execution and Sabitzer’s grueling 2020-21 campaign, meant that from day one the former Leipzig captain was swimming against the tide to catch up to his best form. As with Philippe Coutinho, the last FC Bayern player signed after the first matchday of the Bundesliga had begun, this could end up being a costly misfire which could have easily been avoided with more tactful oversight and thorough planning.
A Dangerous Loop Which Rarely Ends Well
A slow start to life in Bavaria could be forgiven given the factors handled above, but that now in March we are still yet to see an inkling of Sabitzer’s talent shows that the issues in his Bayern tenure run far deeper than fatigue and transfer mismanagement.
What continues to pop up is how out of place he looks, occupying positions which look foreign to his qualities, or failing to reach a wavelength with his new Bayern teammates.
Rather than simply lacking the quality, Sabitzer is instead failing to come to grips with Bayern’s tactical requirements, a risky, vertical style which is easily exposed by wayward passes or an opponent’s efficient counter attack.
As mistakes have accumulated and fierce public scrutiny has grown, Sabitzer has fallen into the unforgiving trap of attempting even more audacious passes to make up for his errors - a dangerous loop which never ends well.
Should Sabitzer spend more time on the bench, continue to be bombarded with concerns over his future, and rarely be afforded an extended run of games in a settled position, then it’s hard to muster the belief that these current shortcomings won’t continue to plague the rest of his Bayern tenure.
Even though Sabitzer’s passing accuracy is almost identical to last season, each misplaced pass has far more significant consequences under Nagelsmann’s audacious attacking game plan. The Austrian is rarely afforded the security of 3 or 4 defenders, so errors like the one against S.L. Benfica (pictured above) can quickly become fatal.
We saw last season how out-of-touch Leroy Sané looked when forced out of position, and lacking match sharpness, so the hope is still there that should Sabitzer finally get an extended run of games unhampered by injury issues or a plight of Covid, FC Bayern could yet have their transformative summer signing in the ranks.
The question marks surrounding the futures of Corentin Tolisso and Marc Roca could give Sabitzer at least another season to prove his qualities, whilst the unwavering support from Julian Nagelsmann shows that the summer recruit has what it takes to become an important asset in the Bavarian capital.
Most importantly though, for all his unconvincing displays, and head-scratching errors, Sabitzer is still a player who 6-months ago could dominate matches in the UEFA Champions League, and routinely contribute 10-15 goals a season. With a renewed confidence in his ability, and the advantage of having now spent a significant period of time acclimating to the surroundings and learning the preferences of his teammates, Sabitzer could still become the priceless third midfielder crucial to Bayern’s UCL candidacy.
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno