Since his transfer in to Juventus from Lazio last season, Stephan Lichtsteiner has become a fan favorite for the bianconeri faithful.
And why wouldn't he? He's a dogged defender whose battery never seems to run out. He goes hard into his tackles, wins the ball, rarely ever makes a glaring mistake, supports the attack well and is not afraid of drawing the occasional caution to keep opponents honest. Put him in front of a brick wall and say "run," and he'll charge the darn thing until he finally busts a hole through it.
Given all the running he does, it's small wonder that Italian radio commentator Guido de Angelis gave him the nickname "Forrest Gump." It doesn't hurt that he's the owner of the first official goal at Juventus Stadium, either.
After years of having the right-back spot manned by the likes of Zdenek Grygera and Marco Motta, Lichtsteiner left a Lazio squad that had been far more successful than Juve over the prior two years and immediately turned a major hole into an immense strength.
That said, he's been in a prolonged slump recently. His play in Juve's loss to Inter was poor, making reckless challenges and more than once risking seeing red. Lichtsteiner has not featured in four of the five matches since.
It's unclear whether that's punishment for his performance against Inter, an allowance for the good run of form new arrival Mauricio Isla has been enjoying, or a combination of the two.
In the very first article I published on B/R when I was first accepted into the writer's program in March, I leveled criticism at Antonio Conte's continued use of the 3-5-2, which at that time seemed to be stalling out Juve's attack and clogging the midfield. While Conte has since worked the kinks out of the formation and used it to roll past most of the opposition that has come into his path, one small issue that I brought up last year with his preferred shape remains: it saps Lichtsteiner of his effectiveness.
Lichtsteiner is really at his best when he plays as a traditional right-back. He's at his best when he can bring the ball out of the back and make overlapping runs to combine with a wing player and get the ball into the box for his striker. He also excelled at sneaking up through the right channel and latching onto long balls from Andrea Pirlo.
He's not the best crosser in the world, but when he is in the right system he can take advantage of a stretched defense to swing the ball in. At the start of last season when Conte was using a 4-3-3, he combined well with whoever Conte had installed as a forward on the right to wreak havoc when he came forward.
But as a wing-back in the 3-5-2, his responsibilities are much different.
Gone is the right-sided attacker that he could pair himself with. He must now play much higher up the field, depriving him of the runs he could make early last year that originated deep and barreled up the right side. His passing is not as sharp and his average crossing doesn't do the job as well as it used to, and even his defensive performance has suffered.
Isla, on the other hand, was a player always more suited to the role of wing-back.
His performances against Pescara, Nordsjaelland and Lazio seem to indicate that the Chilean might have an edge on Lichtsteiner at playing this particular position. The Swiss is a much better defender than Isla, but if a more defensive attitude is required, Conte can always turn to another man on the bench.
Lichtsteiner's play was better in Tuesday's Champions League matchup with Chelsea. He would have scored three minutes into the match had it not been for an outstanding save by Petr Cech that pushed his shot onto the post.
But he was still not at his best. He was prone to losing possession, and took several baffling touches in the attacking third that led to weak crosses and duck-snort passes that would trickle over the end line. When an apparent injury forced Lichtsteiner off the field in the 68th minute, Martin Caceres was brought in, and the difference was palpable.
Is it time for Lichtsteiner to be moved?
Caceres marauded down the right side, making incisive runs and good crosses while looking like he had more energy than Lichtsteiner had even at the game's first whistle. He certainly looked far more dangerous in the wing-back position than the Swiss did.
This brings an interesting question: if Lichtsteiner is not particularly suited to the role that the team is asking him to play—and with players like Isla and Caceres who seem to be more effective as wing-backs—is it not a better for both the club and the player for Lichtsteiner to be sold in the January transfer window?
Such a move would allow Lichtsteiner to play a role where he is more comfortable and effective, allow Conte to slot a player more suited to the wing-back role into his lineup, and give Juve director Giuseppe Marotta a bit more cash on hand to improve the squad. Last August, the Daily Mirror reported that Chelsea had cast an eye towards Lichtsteiner as an alternative should their pursuit of Marseille's Cesar Azpilicueta stall out.
Azpilicueta ended up at Stamford Bridge, but rumors still persist of Lichtsteiner moving to London as well. Talksport reported that such a move was still possible in January as late as November 19.
The question would be a transfer fee. Juve picked up Lichtsteiner for €10 million, and he has been an effective player for them, so any sale would have to at least recoup that. He has a long-term contract, so Juve wouldn't have much leverage in terms of demanding a price, but a lot may depend on how much Roman Abramovich overreacts to Chelsea's current run of form—a reaction that has already taken form in the firing of Roberto Di Matteo. If the Blues end up in the Europa League, he may end up going on a spending spree.
What would be done with that money? ESPNSoccernet Juventus blogger Mina Rzouki reported in a post that ruminated on Lichtsteiner's slump that several media outlets have suggested Juve was considering investing money from a Lichtsteiner sale in Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov.
I would consider such a purchase wasted money.
Kolarov, like Lichtsteiner, has played his entire career as a traditional full-back, although on the left side rather than the right. He would have to adapt on the fly to playing wing-back, and if I were Juve I wouldn't necessarily want him going through his growing pains at the position while in the middle of the stretch run of the race for the scudetto—not to mention whatever European run Juve makes in the new year (they're guaranteed at least a berth in the Europa League, as Nordsjaelland can't catch them for third).
Furthermore, reinforcement on the left of Juve's midfield probably isn't necessary with the emergence of Kwadwo Asamoah. The Ghanaian international is still rough around the edges, but if he makes a few developments, he could turn into a premier left wing-back.
If Lichtsteiner is sold, the best investment of that money would be in a striker. Fernando Llorente has wanted out of Athletic Bilbao for months, and has expressed a desire to play in Turin. Reports surfaced in October that Juve is offering to make Llorente their joint-highest paid player alongside keeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon.
Llorente's contract ends at the end of the season, which deprives Bilbao of the leverage that Manchester City had during the Carlos Tevez saga a year ago. Should Bilbao refuse to move their striker, they will watch him leave the club on a Bosman over the summer and get absolutely nothing. Because of his contract issues, it's unlikely that Bilbao will be able to get much more than €15 million, which should be doable for Juve despite Marotta's protestations that his team will be hamstrung by Italy's economic woes.
Selling Lichtsteiner will cause sorrow for a lot of Juventus fans, this one included. He's won our hearts, but transfer decisions need to be made with the head, and given his current fit in Juve's tactics and the possibility of using the potentially significant funds that Lichtsteiner's sale would garner to fill in the team's gaping hole at striker, it can be said that it would be folly to keep the Swiss defender around past the January window.