Juventus Defender Stephan Lichtsteiner: Unheralded but Vital

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2014

Juventus defender Stephan Lichtsteiner, of Switzerland, celebrates after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Inter Milan at the Juventus stadium, in Turin, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
Massimo Pinca/Associated Press

Since Antonio Conte arrived at Juventus in the summer of 2011, countless columns have been penned in tribute to his all-conquering team. It started with the perfectly balanced midfield of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo, the "M-V-P" trio at the heart of that first title.

The resurgent performances of Gianluigi Buffon and three-man back-line protectorate of Andrea Barzagli, Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini all received their time in the spotlight, as did the emerging talent of Paul Pogba last season.

This year, the new front pairing of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente have enjoyed an effective start to life in Turin, finally giving Conte the attacking edge he previously lacked. Kwadwo Asamoah has emerged as a quality addition on the left flank, yet for all the progression in the side over the last three years, the excellent contribution of one man has been widely overlooked.

It started in the very first game of Conte’s tenure and, in a manner befitting his nickname "The Swiss Express" has not stopped—or even slowed down — ever since. The new Juventus Stadium had seen just fifteen minutes of official match play when, having had his own route to goal blocked by not one but two opposing players, Pirlo checked his run and almost without looking clipped a ball over the top of the static Parma back line.

Floated perfectly, it dropped to the feet of Stephan Lichtsteiner, who had cut in unnoticed from his position on the right. He controlled the ball with one foot before slotting past the helpless Antonio Mirante with the other, the ball settling into the back of the visitor’s goal. Their new home had its first competitive goal, and Juventus had not only found a new hero but, finally, a quality right-back to fill the team’s most long-standing void.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - SEPTEMBER 17:  Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus in action during the UEFA Champions League group stage match between FC Copenhagen and Juventus held on September 17, 2013 at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Ludvig
EuroFootball/Getty Images

After years of mediocre-at-best players like Jonathan Zebina and Marco Motta, Juventus supporters are fully aware of his quality, admiring the determination and effort Lichtsteiner puts forth every time he steps on the field. Yet while the awards, accolades and plaudits have reigned down upon his team-mates, the Swiss international has quietly become one of the best players in the world at his position.

That goal was the first public appearance of a move that has become a major weapon in the arsenal of this side, with Pirlo’s ability to pick out the ex-Lazio man almost at will was on display again this past weekend, February 3rd. Over a shorter distance, his flicked ball over the top of Inter’s defence was exquisitely timed, and once again Lichtsteiner made no mistake in front of goal.

Even here, with a goal against Juve’s bitter rivals, the 30-year-old deferred to the creator-in-chief, bowing down to polish Pirlo’s boot in celebration. “I have to thank Andrea, who laid it on a plate for me,” Lichsteiner told the club’s official website after the 3-1 victory. “With his assists, everything becomes much easier.”

It marked the ninth time he had found the back of the net in 91 appearances for Turin’s grand Old Lady, while he has added 10 assists, numbers which compare favourably with those perceived as the continent’s best. Branislav Ivanovic has contributed to Chelsea scoring 21 times in that same period (15 goals, six assists), while Pablo Zabaleta (four goals, seven assists) and Philipp Lahm (zero goals, 25 assists) would also be in the conversation.

In the five games he has played as a full-back this term, Lahm has averaged 2.0 tackles and 0.8 interceptions per game, while Ivanovic (1.9 and 1.2 respectively). Lichtsteiner’s figures of 1.3 and 0.8 stand up well against those two, but trail Alves (3.2/1.9) and Zabaleta (3.9/1.4) considerably.

Adam Digby (Stats via WhoScored.com)

Yet in terms of being simply beaten by opponents, it is the Juve man leading the way, letting a dribbling player go past him just six times in Serie A action. That works out at 0.5 occasions per game; a figure matched by Ivanovic (12 times) but is far superior to Zabaleta (1.3/27), Lahm (1.1/19) and Alves (1.3/19).

Lichtsteiner’s crossing is also superior to the others mentioned, averaging 1.2 successful attempts per game, beating Alves (1.0), Lahm, Ivanovic (both 0.5) and Zabaleta (0.2). Somehow, while putting on performances that stand up with those top-quality players, he was voted only in third place at the recent Gran Gala del Calcio awards. (h/t Gazzetta dello Sport)

Finishing behind Napoli duo Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga highlights just how underrated the €10 million signing remains. With two Serie A titles already to his name, a third consecutive championship would see Stephan Lichtsteiner become a vital cog in only the second Juventus team to ever accomplish the feat. History remembers the winners, even if they go unappreciated today.

All stats via WhoScored.com