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Why Manchester United's Marcel Sabitzer gamble could pay off

Sabitzer has been signed as a replacement for the recently injured Christian Eriksen

Marcel-Sabitzer-afp (File) Marcel Sabitzer | AFP

It is a desperate signing. But, that does not always mean it is a bad signing. Marcel Sabitzer may not be what Manchester United fans want, but he has much to offer the current squad. The 28-year-old Austrian midfielder has been brought in on loan from German giants Bayern Munich as a replacement for the recently injured Christian Eriksen. The club had already lost Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek to a long-term injury earlier this month. This meant that at the end of January, United only had three fit, senior midfielders for three midfield roles—Casemiro, Fred and Bruno Fernandes. Scott McTominay is expected to return from injury soon. But, Sabitzer, who joined Bayern in 2021 after a successful spell at RB Leipzig, offers something very different from McTominay. In fact, his skill-set is different from Casemiro, Fred and Fernandes, too.

In his own words to the club website: "I am a competitive player... and I can contribute a lot of experience and energy to the squad." His best position is as a traditional box-to-box player, but he is also capable of operating as a deep-lying playmaker or even as an attacking midfielder. He has outstanding work rate and a good passing range, can carry the ball and strike it powerfully. Therefore, he can be rotated in for any of United's current midfielders. How does he compare with them?

While McTominay had a run of good matches earlier in the season, he has recently been the back-up to Casemiro. And, a massive downgrade at that. Compared with Sabitzer, the only area were McTominay can score higher is in aerial duels. This does not mean that the 5'10" Sabitzer is bad in the air, but the 6'4" McTominay is one of the club's strongest players in that regard. But, the Scot is also not great defensively, despite being a defensive midfielder. Therefore, he should fall behind Sabitzer in the pecking order.

The team's starting defensive midfielder Casemiro is crucial to the club's hopes this season. The 30-year-old Brazilian, who has been dubbed "Classymiro" by United fans, has been absolutely sensational since his move to England this season. And the team is almost certain to crumble if he is unavailable through suspension or injury. McTominay is not good enough to replace him and neither is Sabitzer. But, the fact that Sabitzer is capable of dealing with high-intensity pressing and his defensive work rate and passing ability make him a better option to deputise in the role, while United fans hope and pray for Casemiro's return.

Then there is the enigma that is Fred. Before this season, he seemed to have forgotten that he was Brazilian. Occasionally, he would remember, perform well and then go back to being mediocre. But, he has improved vastly under new manager Erik ten Hag this season. And he certainly deserves to start ahead of Sabitzer in the immediate future. He can match Sabitzer for energy and tenacity and when someone reminds him that he is Brazilian, he can also carry the ball well. But, his range of passing and accuracy is not as good as what Sabitzer has shown in the past. Therefore, once Sabitzer adapts to his new surroundings, it would work better for this United team to start the Austrian alongside Casemiro and use Fred as a rotational player in the second half.

United's only out-and-out attacking midfielder, Fernandes, had been struggling since his phenomenal first six months in Manchester. But, he had performed better for Portugal during that period and at the World Cup - he was the team's best player. After returning to club football post Qatar, Fernandes has looked better and is slowly returning to his best. Therefore, the fact that Sabitzer can fill in for Fernandes when the Portuguese midfielder needs to be rested, will be a big relief for ten Hag.

With the sheer number of games coming up—United will be playing a match every three days in February and early March—ten Hag may also need to use youth players such as Zidane Iqbal, 19, and Kobbie Mainoo, 17. But, the experience, energy, the specific skill-set and, most importantly, the versatility of Sabitzer could be key to navigating the fixture congestion caused by a winter World Cup and apathetic authorities.

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