Over the previous five seasons, Stephan Lichtsteiner had proved himself to be among the most important and consistent members of the Juventus squad. A reliable performer either at right-back or as a wing-back, the Switzerland international delivered everything the Bianconeri could ask from a player in either role.
He was solid defensively, capable of shutting down the very best wingers or midfielders he faced out on the flank, while in attack he contributed a steady stream of accurate crosses and assists.
Occasionally, he has weighed in with some crucial goals, too. That was a habit that began when he netted the first-ever strike at Juventus Stadium in competitive play and continued as he bagged against the likes of Inter Milan, Lazio and Borussia Monchengladbach in the years that followed.
The latter of those came just a month after Lichtsteiner underwent surgery for an irregular heartbeat last October. The man himself was clearly pleased with his recovery and his first UEFA Champions League goal.
"I'm feeling really good after the operation and thrilled that everything went so well today," he told the official UEFA website, adding that he “struck the ball perfectly" following Paul Pogba’s superb pass.
Having led Juve with assists during 2013/14, the 2014/15 campaign saw him create Alvaro Morata’s equalising goal in the Champions League final, but last year his productivity began to dip.
That is clearly evident from the table above—compiled using WhoScored.com statistics—which highlights that on-field decline, as the past 18 months pale in comparison to his earlier output.
As he entered this summer, Lichtsteiner was writing history. He was a five-time Serie A title winner with the Bianconeri, also helping the club become the first to win back-to-back league-and-cup doubles, reach that aforementioned Champions League final and lift the Supercoppa Italiana three times.
Given that he will turn 33 in January, his waning impact could be blamed on his age, but Lichtsteiner then became involved in an ugly episode as he attempted to move away from Juventus.
"There is no problem, we'll see what happens," he told outlet Fichajes (h/t FourFourTwo) as he headed off to Euro 2016 in the summer, only for the arrival of Dani Alves to make him an obvious target for transfer speculation.
Turin-based newspaper La Stampa (h/t Italian Football Daily) reported talks over a new contract had stalled and linked Lichtsteiner with a move to Chelsea, while Premium Sport added Borussia Dortmund to the growing list of suitors (h/t Football Italia).
Yet as the deadline approached, Sky Sport Italia and La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) made a genuinely surprising revelation, insisting that Inter had approached the 32-year-old.
They noted Juve did not want to sell him to another Serie A side, and the move never came to fruition, but the fact he had been linked with Juve’s most bitter rivals prompted the defender to take to his official Facebook page to explain the situation:
I believe in facts rather than words. I live and breathe every game and every training session for the jersey that I wear and for the success of my team. That was never different and will never change!
In this sense...FinoAllaFine!
Before the two parties could move on however, Juventus took the decision to omit Lichtsteiner from their squad for the Champions League group stage when the list was published on their official website.
Juan Cuadrado’s return from Chelsea and the presence of Alves meant there was a perfectly acceptable footballing reason for that move, but supporters of the Old Lady still felt betrayed by the Swiss star.
"Many fans in Turin believe Lichtsteiner and his agent tried to force a move to Inter after agreeing a deal with the Nerazzurri,” Maurizio—a Juventus season ticket holder— told Bleacher Report. “Now everybody is saying it was a tactical decision to leave him out of the Champions League squad, but we don’t believe that.”
“He is being punished for his behaviour, and his Facebook posts don’t help. He could have said those words before the window closed, but now it looks like he is just trying to repair the damage he has caused."
In the months since, Lichtsteiner’s performances have hardly helped his cause. Caught out of position countless times, he has been uncharacteristically at fault for many of the goals the team has conceded in 2016/17.
He scored against Inter but was then utterly terrorised by Ivan Perisic as the Nerazzurri went on to win, 2-1. Further poor performances followed against Napoli and Udinese, before a clumsy challenge against Chievo (see video above) led to the Veronese side taking the lead in that clash.
The Bianconeri fought back to win, which they failed to do away at Genoa recently, with Lichtsteiner among the many poor performers as the team slumped to a stunning 3-1 defeat at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.
Much like the rest of the side, he was much-improved against Atalanta this past weekend, though he was involved in the ugly spat with Franck Kessie seen in the video above. However, while his display in that 3-1 win was far better, it is undeniable that Lichtsteiner has been poor overall this term, a fact backed up by some startling statistics.
As the graphic below clearly indicates, even his combative nature is failing him; Squawka.com figures show he has won just 32 percent of the duels he has contested this term.
It remains to be seen if the improvement he showed this weekend is merely a one-off or a return to his best form, but what is clear is that there will be plenty of opportunity to find out in the coming weeks.
According to Juve’s official website, Alves has suffered a fracture to his left fibula and will be missing for a prolonged period. That leaves Lichtsteiner as the club’s only out-and-out right-back, although Cuadrado can obviously feature as a wing-back should coach Massimiliano Allegri opt for the 3-5-2 formation.
"I am only thinking about winning the Scudetto again, and the Coppa Italia and Champions League,” Lichtsteiner told RSI last month (h/t Goal.com). “I hope to return to our Champions League squad after the winter break. I am taking things one day at a time. My relationship with Juventus is clear."
With his contract set to expire this summer and a chance to show his ability, Lichtsteiner will spend the next few games playing for his future. Whether that future lies with Juventus remains to be seen, but it will depend on his performances and mindset over an important run of matches.