Marcel Sabitzer: RB Leipzig’s Austrian Maestro
This player analysis first featured on our dedicated Red Bull Football site, redbullanalysis.com.
Ever since their promotion to the Bundesliga, Marcel Sabitzer has slowly but surely become an unsung hero for RB Leipzig whilst remaining under the radar and quietly going about his business. During their promotion run to the Bundesliga, the focus was on club stars such as Timo Werner, Emil Forsberg, and Naby Keïta but players like Marcel Sabitzer slipped by unnoticed. The production line that is FC Salzburg, RasenBallsport Leipzig and New York Red Bulls is never-ending. The three teams continue to produce top quality talent and always seem to plug in gaps and strengthen the East German club in their quest for global domination.
Marcel Sabitzer was born in central Austria in the city of Graz in 1994. Being the son of former Austria international Herfried Sabitzer, football was always in Marcel’s future. He began his football education with Admira Villach in 2000 before moving to Grazer Atheltik-Klub. After going through a trophy-laden spell the club went into administration and financial difficulties. These issues saw Sabitzer move to Fussballklub Austria Wien in 2008 after seven years with GAK. After spending a year with Austria Wien he then moved to Fussballklub Admira Wacker Modling.
At the tender age of 16, he was promoted to the reserve side and given his professional debut for the first team in the same year. By 2012 he would make a combined 85 appearances between the first-team and the reserves, scoring 25 in the process. This rapid development saw him become a sought-after commodity in the European transfer market. His year and a half stay with Modling yielded 10 goals from 45 appearances. This granted him a move to Rasenballsport Leipzig in 2014 off the back of his impressive performances and was immediately loaned out to FC Salzburg.
This move triggered a severe backlash amongst Austrian supporters but his 27 goals and 21 assists in 51 appearances that season immediately shut down critics and caused RB Leipzig to recall the midfielder the next season. His first season in the 2.Bundesliga saw him score eight goals and five assists helping Leipzig to promotion by winning the league.
‘Marcel is here to lead’
Marcel Sabitzer is highly rated in the corridors of RB Leipzig. Many cannot fathom his influence on the team. During the summer camp in Tirol, players were surprised to find mottos designed for each of them on their bathroom mirrors – an idea that came from the club’s marketing department and was supported by the team psychologist. Naby Keïta, for example, saw the words: “Naby is here to inspire.” For Sabitzer, the mirror message was: “Marcel is here to lead.”
Their first season in the top flight saw them announce their arrival on the world stage in grand style by qualifying for the Champions League group stages. Marcel Sabitzer’s natural leadership ability along with his more than useful goal scoring contributions propelled RB Leipzig to become one of the most exciting football teams to watch. With Kevin Kampl and Konrad Laimer joining him in central midfield, the Austrian forms part of an effective trio who run the midfield ragged. Now, let us take a look at the qualities the versatile Austrian brings to the table.
Marcel Sabitzer is a unique player who possesses a multitude of qualities required in a central midfielder. In his early teenage years, Sabitzer was more of a right-sided attacker with the ability to place across the front four positions. His goal scoring statistics have proven his ability to score goals and provide assists throughout a season consistently. After he moved to RB Leipzig, Ralf Rangnick felt a move into midfield would benefit him more and with the team set up in a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 formation, Marcel Sabitzer had to adapt. And adapt he did, the Austrian midfielder was converted from a hardworking, goal scoring attacking midfielder to a tempo dictating, deep-lying right-sided Mezzala.
What is a Mezzala you ask?
The Mezzala is a roaming central midfield playmaker who operates in the half spaces and is a made up hybrid of a central midfielder and winger. The Austrian midfielder has the experience of playing as a winger having played there for Rapid Vienna and FC Salzburg. Making the transition from winger to central midfielder requires experience in both positions to be played effectively. Having developed himself in one, it was a matter of time before he became proficient in both.
Marcel Sabitzer’s strength lies in positional play and his ability to find open spaces to receive passes. No longer is he a one dimensional, expeditious winger but rather a driving force that encapsulates the team to push forward. As a deep-lying playmaker, there is a need to find space and time to control the game and embolden his teammates to play their natural game.
Marcel Sabitzer is commonly partnered with Kevin Kampl and one of Diego Demme or Konrad Laimer. Kevin Kampl is deployed as the box-to-box midfielder with Diego Demme and Konrad Laimer acting as the defensive midfielders who support Kampl and Sabitzer to dictate play in the middle and final third of the pitch.
Notice how much space Marcel Sabitzer has to scan the field and pick his pass. His football intelligence is underrated; after receiving the ball from Danish striker Yussuf Poulsen, Sabitzer has a variety of choices in Konrad Laimer, Emil Forsberg and Poulsen himself as passing options. The visible chemistry between the Leipzig players is evident in their ability to fashion unorthodox opportunities. The diminutive Austrian plays a neat chip to Emil Forsberg who then lays it off for the onrushing Kevin Kampl who has a clear sight of goal.
This opportunity was from last week’s DFB Pokal match against Hoffenheim. As Marcelo Saracchi receives the ball from Kampl, you can see Sabitzer already starting to plot his next move by analysing the players around him, in particular, Jean-Kevin Augustin. Notice how Kerem Demirbay has identified the threat but once the Austrian receives the ball he uses his acceleration and the wide gaps between the Hoffenheim defenders to play Augustin through. Leipzig’s utilised the overload of Hoffenheim players combined with Sabitzer’s intelligence to create a one v one opportunity for Yussuf Poulsen from Jean-Kevin Augustin’s cross. The French forward has pace in abundance and was already a yard ahead of his opponent making him a favourite to reach the ball and send in a cross for his strike partner.
The Modern Playmaker – Defending From The Front
Marcel Sabitzer’s transition to central midfield not only allowed him to flourish as a creative force but also take advantage of his burst of pace to defend from the front – just like the modern playmaker. One of the key attributes of the Red Bull system includes a high pressing strategy that begins with the strikers and ends with the centre-backs. By allowing him to play in a deeper and wider position, he is given more freedom to press and support his midfield. Leipzig galvanizes the opposition ball carrier in midfield by surrounding the player. With a defensive midfielder and fullback to cover him, Sabitzer can freely push into the opposition putting them under pressure to play it quickly.
In the 2016/2017 season, we can see Sabitzer’s defensive statistics are quite low. He made about 1.1 interceptions per game with an average of one tackle per game. He spent most of his time further upfield where the opportunity to tackle or make an interception is much lower unless he is joined by the other forwards.
In 2017/2018, we clearly see an improvement in his defensive figures. He attempted more tackles per game (1.7) and significantly improved his duel win percentage from 3.5 wins per game to 4.6. Sabitzer was finally flourishing and contributing to the high-pressing strategy employed by Ralf Rangnick. Even though he has been dribbled past more often (1.2 vs 0.5 dribbles per game) and dispossessed more frequently, this can be excused as he is now trying to pressurize the opposition rather tackle.
Yes, this does go against his increased tackle rate but attempting more tackles does not guarantee success. He defends and initiates counter attacks from deep where he has a better grip on the game and can tilt the momentum towards Leipzig’s favour. He has players around him to do the dirty work. As long as he can support the press and cause his opponents to fumble, his job is complete.
Not convinced yet?
We compare two Marcel Sabitzer games between 2017 and 2018. Let us compare heat maps and see where he spent most of his time. Against Eintracht Frankfurt in 2017, he spent his time higher up the pitch. The Hoffenheim game from last week shows him in his own half.
Here is an in-game example of Sabitzer’s style of defending. In the match against Rosenborg in the Europa League, we can see how tight he marks the player and pressurizes him into losing the ball and in the process win a foul.
The young Austrian has time to develop and refine his game. Marcel Sabitzer is far from the finished article but has the potential to become a superstar at a top European club. His overall play style is similar to Luka Modrić at Real Madrid or Moussa Dembélé at Tottenham Hotspur, both players have an undeniable ability to pull strings from deeper positions in midfield who are able to attack with finesse and defend diligently.
Another similarity between the two players is they were both severely underrated for a large portion of their careers. With the Croatian and Belgian well into their 30s, the likes of Marcel Sabitzer and Bernardo Silva lead the way in an era of enigmatic winger/midfielder hybrids who are taking the world by storm. We could be seeing the little Austrian maestro playing as part of Madrid’s galactico’s or Barcelona’s prestigious midfield trio. Only time will tell.