Change is afoot at Arsenal. With Arsene Wenger’s departure and Unai Emery’s appointment, a lot of changes are being expected and I am sure they will take place in the due course of time. However, the first set of changes that have taken place are interesting, if not entirely expected. Per Mertesacker has announced retirement and is now the Under-21 manager for the Gunners. Santi Cazorla has been released as well. On the incoming side, Arsenal have announced the signing of Stephan Lichsteiner from Juventus on a free transfer.
Lichtsteiner is a 34-year old right back from Switzerland, who has had a long and successful association with Juventus over the last seven years. He also played his 100th game for the Swiss national side and contributed excellently as his side held the tournament favourites Brazil at bay in their first game on Sunday night. In the absence of Fabian Schar, he would have captained the Swiss side.
On the face of it, it does seem that Arsenal have landed a bargain deal for a very good player. Let us delve deeper into Lichtsteiner’s career and stats to understand how good a player he is and to guess his role in Unai Emery’s first season as Arsenal manager.
Stephan Lichtsteiner began his senior career in 2001 at Grasshoppers Zurich in Switzerland. After playing for 4 years for the Swiss side and winning the title with them in 2003, he moved to Lille in France in the summer of 2005. He played for Lille for three years, before moving to Lazio in 2008. He won the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana with the Roman side, before moving to Juventus in 2011. He has won the title in each of his seven seasons in Turin. Now he has moved to London.
Even if Lichsteiner has no other quality he has a tremendous amount of experience across several leagues in Europe. He has played 565 club games overall and 259 of them for Juventus, 301 in all in Serie A, and 89 in Ligue 1. He has played 58 games in Europe with 36 of them being in Champions League proper and 11 of them in Europa League/UEFA Cup. That is a massive amount of experience at the highest level of football.
Of course, he would not have played so many games for so many good teams had he not had at least some qualities. Over the last three seasons, he has played an average of 74 minutes per appearance. For a defender, clearances, blocks, and interceptions, as well as tackling are the most important metrics. Over the last three years, he has put in 1.67 clearances and 3.53 interceptions per appearance, but he has been less active in blocking shots (0.09 blocks per appearance). This is understandable as he was the right-back and that, too, for a team as dominant as Juventus. In terms of tackles, he puts in 1.1 tackles per game, going by last season’s numbers.
As a right-back, his crossing and key pass numbers also need to be good. Last season, he provided 0.3 key passes per game, i.e. he enabled one shot after every 3 games. Similarly, he put in 0.3 crosses per game but did put in 2.2 long passes per game. What these stats paint for me is a picture of a defensive-minded right-back who does not always bomb forward on the wing. Depending on what role you believe the Swiss player is going to play, that can be a good thing as well as a bad one.
While Lichtsteiner has scored 29 and assisted 46 goals in his club career, goal contribution is clearly not his forte. His contribution averages to a goal scored/assisted every 572 minutes or every 7.5 games. He was a bit more prolific about three seasons ago but over the last three seasons, he has assisted 5 goals and scored just one in Serie A. From Understat, we get the xG and xA numbers which are both 0.04 per 90 minutes, again indicating that his role in the Juventus team was not to score or assist goals.
The Deal from Arsenal’s Perspective
At what must be considered a relatively old age of 34, Lichtsteiner gets to join Arsenal. That is definitely a good thing for the player. But can we guess what the Gunners are looking for in this immensely experienced player?
One possible reason to sign him could have been a need to find a backup for Hector Bellerin. But, if that was the case then the Gunners would have looked for a similar player – younger, faster, who is as involved in the attack as he is in defence. Bellerin played more than 3,000 minutes for the Gunners last season in the Premier League. Lichtsteiner played around 1,700 minutes. According to WhoScored, Bellerin is better than Lichtsteiner in all metrics other than long balls. So, it seems unlikely that the Swiss player is considered a like for like replacement for Bellerin
But, the older player does bring one quality that Arsenal seemed to lack last season, especially in defence – leadership. Lichtsteiner’s immense experience gives him the ability to lead the Gunners’ defence, especially in crucial matches in the Premier League, or in crunch matches in Europa League or the FA Cup. He need not be played in all games but he can be a great option on the bench if the Gunners need to protect a lead or if they have to defend against a rampant opponent.
Stephan Lichtsteiner is definitely not a name that will get the Arsenal fans dreaming of glory. He is not even a straight replacement for Bellerin, should the Spaniard look to move out. However, the Swiss right-back does bring immense experience and leadership to the Gunners’ defence and he can be a great option to have on the bench.