Marcel Sabitzer has evolved into a key man in Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
In what was – up until that point – the most significant 90 minutes in RB Leipzig’s short European history, it was a certain Austrian who stole the show.
Within 21 minutes, Marcel Sabitzer had taken the Champions League round of 16 tie completely out of a depleted Tottenham’s reach with a strike from distance and an instinctive close-range header.
Two would eventually become three as Emil Forsberg rounded off a memorable night for Die Roten Bullen to secure a 4-0 aggregate victory for the young East Germans.
However, it was Sabitzer’s showing alongside compatriot Konrad Laimer in the middle of the park which supposedly caught Spurs’ – and Arsenal’s – eye, with recent reports suggesting that the Leipzig skipper is firmly on Jose Mourinho’s wish list.
Now, Sabitzer isn’t necessarily a profile the Lilywhites are crying out for, but when you take into account his sheer talent and career-defining evolution under Julian Nagelsmann, Spurs can ill afford to overlook a move for the 26-year-old – one that would reportedly cost them a mere €30m. Bargain.
After establishing himself as one of Austria’s brightest talents at Rapid Wien, then second-tier Leipzig, ahead of the curve once more, pounced in 2014 to secure Sabitzer’s services before loaning him to sister club Salzburg, where he was a distinct beneficiary of Sadio Mane’s exit.
Deployed off the shoulder of target man Jonathan Soriano, Sabitzer notched an impressive haul of 27 goals and 21 assists in his sole season at the Austrian giants.
Sabitzer was prolific during his sole season at Salzburg | EuroFootball/Getty Images
Upon his return to Leipzig, Sabitzer functioned as one of two creative heartbeats wreaking havoc in the half-spaces as part of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s thrilling 4-2-2-2 as he, but particularly the irresistible Emil Forsberg, proved pivotal in Die Roten Bullen’s incredible second-place finish in 2016/17.
His role refused to alter from a bona fide attacking midfielder under both Hasenhuttl and his successor Ralf Rangnick.
A pair of shoulder injuries disrupted both his 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons but he was still able to produce rather impressive numbers – 18 goal contributions in 52 Bundesliga games. Although, there perhaps wasn’t the expected ‘boom’ that was projected when he was befuddling defences in his homeland for both Rapid Wien and Salzburg.
Stagnation may perhaps be a tad harsh, but it certainly isn’t too far off. Sabitzer needed Nagelsmann.
Just a couple of gegenpressing maniacs… | TF-Images/Getty Images
Following the arrival of Die Menschenfänger last summer, the Austrian has emerged as one of the finest box-to-box midfielders the continent has to offer. His evolution into a deeper and more disciplined role has been the making of the 26-year-old, with the relationship he forged with Laimer in the double pivot last season proving incredibly effective.
Nagelsmann’s rationale for Sabitzer’s adjustment is a simple one: “We wanted him on the ball more,“ he said speaking to The Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein.
Such is the flexibility of Nagelsmann’s side, however, that Sabizter doesn’t merely function in one zone or perform the same role throughout a typical 90-minute contest. Leipzig’s configuration is totally phase-dependent, and perhaps there’s no better example to highlight this than in August’s Champions League quarter-final triumph over Atletico Madrid.
On that night, Sabitzer consistently alternated from a disciplined member of the pivot out of possession to a frequent right forward when Leipzig had the ball, seeking to create from between the lines.
Julian Nagelsmann has evolved Sabitzer into an all-action box-to-box midfield demon | MIGUEL A. LOPES/Getty Images
Once again, the dynamic Austrian’s supreme versatility, astute tactical awareness and all-encompassing nature were on full display on what was another special European night for the East Germans.
While the tactical element to his game has been refined by his meticulous young coach, the technical side has only been enhanced. But what’s perhaps most impressive about the 26-year-old is his desire to win back possession once it’s been lost.
Alongside Laimer last season, Leipzig morphed into a gegenpressing juggernaut thanks to the overwhelming efforts of their midfield pair. The intensity at which Sabitzer plays the game is admirable, while his capacity to block space and cut passing lanes highlights his savvy side, improved upon by Nagelsmann.
Stop whatever you’re doing and watch this ???
The best goal of the season so far? ?
Take a bow, Marcel Sabitzer ?pic.twitter.com/NwsqCGYceI
— Goal (@goal) October 28, 2019
Overall, Sabitzer has served as the ideal role model in a young Leipzig squad and it was no surprise to see the Austrian voted the permanent captain of the side after standing in for Willi Orban last term and propelling them to a Champions League semi-final.
A muscle injury has prevented him from building on a majestic 2019/20 campaign at the start of 20/21, although his two penalties in three Bundesliga appearances have helped Leipzig to victories over Hertha BSC and Freiburg.
With Timo Werner out the door, the Leipzig skipper may well be the most significant spoke in Nagelsmann’s innovative wheel, and he’ll be looking to thrust Leipzig to the Bundesliga title before his inevitable switch to north London.
Okay, so maybe’s it’s not inevitable…or even likely for that matter.
Marcel Sabitzer’s albeit unlikely arrival would surely spark the end of Dele Alli at Tottenham | Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Nevertheless, should Sabitzer make the switch to Tottenham, that’ll surely bring Dele Alli’s time in N17 to an end. While the Austrian is by no means as scintillating a manipulator of space, he’ll still be vying for a similar role in Mourinho’s 4-3-3 – a number eight position ahead of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Such is Sabitzer’s versatility, though, he could function in the pivot or more advanced as a number ten or inside forward role should a 4-2-3-1 be deployed.
While his profile doesn’t directly align itself with any of Spurs’ current midfield options – thus making it tough to envisage who he’d actually replace – it’s clear that with his capacity to cover transitions akin to Moussa Sissoko, Tanguy Ndombele-like verticality, to play every game like it’s his last as Hojbjerg does and wriggle out of the tightest of spaces like an Austrian Giovani Lo Celso; Sabitzer’s a combination of Mourinho’s options.
A box-to-box midfielder will certainly be low down on Spurs’ list of ‘areas of need’ next summer, but if Marcel Sabitzer is available for the reported price, it’s a deal the Lilywhites should certainly consider.