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Let’s Actually Talk about Marcel Sabitzer

Much attention has been given to Niclas Füllkrug and Felix Nmecha; what about BVB’s other summer signing?

AC Milan v Borussia Dortmund: Group F - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

In the “Best Player of the Hinrunde” section of our roundtable review, there was no questioning who Borussia Dortmund’s best signing of the summer has been. But a keen eye would have caught a little love for Marcel Sabitzer in there. The Austrian midfielder joined BVB from Bayern Munich after a semi-successful loan spell in Manchester, seemingly as a replacement for the combination of Mahmoud Dahoud and Raphael Guerreiro. Felix Nmecha was clearly the intended candidate for the Jude Bellingham void, but Dortmund had lost not just one midfielder, despite the fanfare; they had lost a whole host of options. While Sabitzer has not galvanized the pitch with eye-catching displays, the Austrian has quietly asserted himself as a mainstay in the midfield and is growing into his role at BVB.

The Credentials

Turn the clock back to August of 2021, when Sabitzer joined Bayern Munich right on the cusp of deadline day. ‘Sabi’’s free transfer was meant to link him with former head coach Julian Nagelsmann, under whom Sabitzer flourished at RB Leipzig. The Austrian playmaker predated Nagelsmann, however. An eight year veteran of the Red Bull juggernaut, Sabitzer played seven seasons with Leipzig, including a first season in the 2. Bundesliga. Sabitzer, alongside Emil Forsberg, Willi Orban, and Yusuf Poulsen (and a ton of MONEY) formed the core of a Leipzig team that would develop into one of the Bundesliga’s best sides. Ultimately, the 27 year-old did what every Bundesliga fan hates most—joined the ranks of Bayern Munich, the league’s other great enemy.

When Sabitzer joined Munich, most Dortmund fans were resigned to the knowledge that Leipzig players rarely swap the east for the west, but given the chance, any Dortmund fan worth their salt would have known that Sabitzer would be a real weapon in the BVB midfield, and Bayern had gotten a steal.

FBL-GER-CUP-LEIPZIG-DORTMUND Photo by ANNEGRET HILSE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

During his Leipzig tenure, Sabi only had two season with less than ten G+A contributions. In his only season at Salzburg, he notched an outrageous 19 goals and 13 assists. Over the course of their time in the Bundesliga, Leipzig have always tended to play a narrow game, with strikers like Timo Werner and Lois Openda providing a direct threat down the middle, supported by a cast of talented midfielders and fullbacks who would progress the ball into dangerous areas. Sabitzer thrived in this system, where his flexibility allowed him to float from a number six role to a number ten role no matter where he was deployed. His X-factor has always been his ability to hit a shot from range, which he has already shown glimpses of in Black and Yellow.

The Dark Period

So Sabizter moved to Bayern, as many talented Bundesliga players do. Then sporting director Hasan Salamazfhifhzif and CEO Oliver Kahn had this to say of the move:

“Marcel is a very good footballer, he has a great mentality, he’s very ambitious and he carried responsibility on and off the pitch as captain of RB”

“Marcel Sabitzer offers everything that an FC Bayern player needs.”

High praise for a player that, in two seasons in Munich, would only make fifteen match starts. Competition for places in the Bayern squad is always high, and despite some convincing performances, Sabi never broke into the starting eleven for good in Munich. Unfortunately for Sabitzer, Bayern loaded their midfield with players who all want to do the same thing, so it was hard to differentiate himself from the dynamic, do-it-all midfielders that are Kimmich and Goretzka.

FC Bayern München v FC Rottach-Egern Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

So after enough time freezing on the bench, Sabitzer went to the other European club that likes to kill players’ careers and spirits, Manchester United. A brief, injury laden spell in England still allowed Sabitzer to showcase some of the skills that made him so successful in Leipzig, and despite failing to earn a permanent move, Sabi had leveled the value of his stock.

Enter, Dortmund

Apologies for the history lesson, but when Dortmund sign a 29 year-old player, there are a fair few details to comb through. Sabitzer’s move to Dortmund developed quickly; so much so that there was very little time for media hype or fanfare. Given his recent injuries and his arrival from a certain Bavarian club, opinions were mixed on the Austrian as a worthwhile punt for BVB, especially after names like Ozan Kökçü and Khéphren Thuram were floated around the month before. Still, a core group of BVB fans remembered what Sabitzer was capable of, knowing BVB had gotten a player with a solid CV, albeit a few years late.

Since joining the team, Sabitzer has quickly worked his way into the squad, and despite a minor injury, has generally been a very competent addition. Sabi has grown into the side, developing an understanding of his role in a Dortmund’s three-man midfield.

Sabitzer in Numbers

Stats Per 90
Stats Per 90
Shots on Target 0.71
Progressive Passes 4.95
Passes into Penalty Area 1.24
Goal Creating Actions 0.53
Progressive Carries 1.68
Take-On Success % 58.30%

Admittedly, I’m cherry-picking here. Sabitzer’s stats do not glow gold in every category, but that’s okay. These numbers still put Sabitzer in the top half of midfielders in the Bundesliga, and show that in terms of moving the ball into attacking areas, Sabitzer is doing a serviceable job of getting involved. Sabi’s numbers for progressive passes are admirable, and the number of shots he gets on target per match actually make him one of the best in the league. While Sabitzer was brought in to fill in for Mo Dahoud and Raphael Guerreiro, who were never significant parts of the midfield anyway, he is actually carrying the burden of Jude Bellingham’s responsibility in this midfield. Sabitzer has found consistency hard to come by as well, with an ever-changing midfield structure shifting him further backward and forward on the pitch. He has also played with fullbacks of drastically different styles, affecting the spaces he is able to occupy. Still, Sabi has kept his head down done the job assigned to him match after match.

Against FC Köln, BVB fans saw the best of what Sabitzer may be able to offer this side. His passing was crisp and incisive, with four balls played into the final third, and he was defensively stout, winning over 60% of his challenges. Whereas for the majority of the season, the attack has had to bypass the midfield to get going, Sabitzer helped Dortmund advance through the midfield with greater success.

It is easy to forget, when signing a 29 year-old player with Bundesliga experience, that settling in is still a part of joining a new club. Sabitzer made a bold move heading to BVB, a club with no love for any of his former employers, no players from his home country, and essentially no veterans from his former teams. Certainly it will have been challenging for Sabi to find his place in the squad and the locker room. But even at 29, Sabitzer has plenty left to offer this squad. He has already shown glimpses of the quality that made him a Bundesliga star in Leipzig. What BVB need to do is to continue finding their rythmn in the league, string together some results, and more than likely, players like Marcel Sabitzer will begin to flourish.