Manchester United have reached their first domestic cup final since 2018. After triumphing 2-0 over Nottingham Forest in their Carabao Cup second leg, the Red Devils walk out 5-0 victors on aggregate. While United coming within touching distance of a first trophy since 2017 is the headline here, it is not the only story circling Old Trafford at the moment.
The deadline day arrival of Marcel Sabitzer has got tongues wagging in Manchester. The usually-glacial United transfer department actually moved quickly to address a squad need. One minute the club were announcing that Christian Eriksen’s ankle injury, a result of Andy Carroll’s thuggish chop in Saturday-s 3-1 FA Cup win over Reading, would keep him out until April. The next, Sky Germany’s Florian Plettenburg broke the news that the Red Devils were pursuing Bayern Munich’s Marcel Sabitzer as cover.
United don’t usually do their business quickly. The club is synonymous with the phrase “transfer saga”. Whether eventually signing players like Ander Herrera and Jadon Sancho, or coming away empty handed as with Frenkie de Jong or Wesley Sneijder, the Reds simply don’t do brevity. Appropriately for a club whose online fanbase seems to enjoy transfer rumours more than what happens on the pitch, every United deal comes packed with more twists than M. Night Shyamalan’s back catalogue.
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But this window has been different. For various reasons, manager Erik ten Hag required replacements for three members of his squad. Along with Eriksen, the club needed to bring in cover for Cristiano Ronaldo, who departed on a free transfer, and Newcastle United’s on-loan goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, who was recalled.
This raised no shortage of red flags within a fanbase used to seeing the club’s owners, the Glazer family, allow the playing squad go to rack and ruin. But United’s recruitment team, headed up by football director John Murtough, moved swiftly and effectively.
After a high-spending summer and with the shadow of a sale hanging over the club, United were never going to be shopping for big ticket items. But they moved smartly for a trio of loan signings. Crystal Palace’s England goalkeeper Jack Butland is solid cover for David De Gea and Tom Heaton. Wout Weghorst will probably at least equal Ronaldo’s meagre goal return this season, while offering far more team spirit and discipline. But it’s Sabitzer that naturally carries the most interest, given his profile and the importance of the man he’s temporarily replacing.
So what can Red Devils fans expect from the Bayern Munich man? Sabitzer primarily operates in central midfield, but can also play in a number ten role or in a wide-right berth. There are some fears he may be a little too attacking for the deep role Eriksen is usually deployed in. But the Dane himself was expected to provide competition for Bruno Fernandes in the number ten position when he signed, before Ten Hag reimagined Eriksen as a deep-lying playmaker.
This is a role Sabitzer could fit into at Old Trafford. While his troubled Bayern spell has seen his numbers plummet, he has primarily been used off the bench. Still, two goals and two assists from 54 games is not quite where he wants to be. But his RB Leipzig tenure offers far more encouragement to United fans worried about being without their creative fulcrum. Sabitzer scored 52 goals and assisted 42 more across 229 appearances during his time at the Red Bull Arena.
Bayern’s policy of skimming the cream off the top of their Bundesliga rivals has always been a mixed bag. Some players have flourished at Germany’s biggest club while others have found themselves blinking in the bright lights. While United are under no less scrutiny than Bayern, it may still be liberating for Sabitzer to get away for half a season. If Ten Hag can tap into the Austria international’s best form, it could be vital to maintaining United’s momentum.
United were never likely to need Eriksen or a replacement to get through tonight’s tie. Respectfully, Forest’s prospects of a first cup final in three decades were wiped out a week ago at the City Ground. But, with a Wembley showpiece to look forward to, United supporters can plan the trip knowing they have secured a quality option in midfield. While Eriksen will be sorely missed, it’s now on Sabitzer to make sure his absence isn’t mourned too much.