Thanks to a vicious Andy Carroll tackle during Manchester United’s 3-1 victory over Reading in the FA Cup last Saturday that, somehow, escaped a booking (although the Liverpool flop and Boyzone fanatic did pick up two yellows later), Christian Eriksen will be out for most of the rest of the season.
Surely, United are screwed, right? Eriksen has been one of the club’s standout performers this year and his creativity and guile have been instrumental in the team’s uptick in form. Without him, our dreams of winning silverware are shot, right?
Maybe. But at least United were able to put a contingency plan in place.
With only hours left before the transfer window shut, United and Bayern Munich agreed to a loan deal for central midfielder Marcel Sabitzer for the rest of the season. With United only pursuing temporary moves in this window, Sabitzer was probably the best player available that they could conceivably get — especially on such short notice. Chelsea were also interested (as they were with, seemingly, every player during this transfer window), but decided to bow out and spend £106 million on Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez instead.
There’s a lot to like about Sabitzer. Like Eriksen, he’s good at moving the ball up the pitch and playing progressive passes. He’s also more than comfortable playing in a pressing system, having learned from the likes of Ralf Rangnick, Ralph Hasenhüttl and current Bayern boss Julian Nagelsmann while plying his trade for Red Bull Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg.
It was Sabitzer who pulled the strings for a talented Leipzig team that went to the UEFA Champions League semifinals in the 2019-2020 season. During that unlikely run, he made his reputation in England by scoring a brace to knock Tottenham Hotspur out in the quarterfinals. Spurs were then linked to him for the better part of the next two seasons, however a deal never materialized.
Instead, Sabitzer did what most Bundesliga standouts end up doing — he joined Bayern Munich, making a €15 million move in August 2021. So far, it hasn’t worked out for him — which is why Bayern were willing to let him go out on loan in the first place. He spent most of the 2021-22 season on the bench, and this year has been more of the same, as the ex-Leipzig skipper has only made 7 starts and 15 overall appearances. He had already fallen behind several of his teammates in the pecking order, and the pending arrival of his former teammate, Konrad Laimer, from Leipzig in the summer could be Bayern’s way of telling Sabitzer to find a new team.
While his lack of success at Bayern is certainly a concern, it doesn’t mean he can’t succeed at United. For one thing, because of their domestic superiority, Bayern’s biggest rival is itself and most of the pressure comes from within. They have multiple, starting-caliber players at each position and competition for spots in the lineup is fierce. If you don’t make an immediate impact, it’s easy to fall through the cracks. Just ask Xherdan Shaqiri, Emre Can, Lukas Podolski and others who flopped at Bayern but did well once they left.
Plus, the club is notorious for its internal politics and the atmosphere isn’t for everyone. Maybe Sabitzer just needed a change of scenery. After all, his own agent called Sabitzer “the most unpleasant person to be around when he’s not playing.”
United has its own level or dysfunction, but completion for playing time in central midfield isn’t one of them. With Eriksen, Scott McTominay and Donny van de Beek hurt, Sabitzer should get opportunities. The team’s setup might benefit him, too. According to former Bayern star Dietmar Hamann, is not a good defensive player and needs to play further forward. If that’s the case, then he should be pleased to be playing alongside Casemiro (assuming Casemiro’s back doesn’t give out from carrying United all season long).
And like the Weghorst deal, this one is low-risk for United. If he stinks, he’ll just go back to Bayern’s bench in July. If he plays well, he could help United win a trophy and qualify for the Champions League. He could also earn a move to another club (maybe United, if Frenkie de Jong gives us the runaround again) or force Bayern to give him another look.
It’s also nice seeing United take advantage of the loan market for once. Sir Alex Ferguson rarely took in loaners and, with a few exceptions in the post-Fergie years, that precedent has largely held. With three players in the first team under contract with other clubs, this is the highest number of loaned players at United since a brief period in 2007 when it had two (Henrik Larsson and Tomasz Kuszczak — the latter was a strange one where it was a permanent deal but the first year was, technically, a loan).
Either way, it’s good to know the club can act fast if it wants or needs to.