On Sunday evening, Spain welcomed Switzerland for a friendly game as the 32 national teams prepare to embark upon the World Cup in Russia that starts next week.
With Arsenal set to finalize the deal to sign Stephan Lichsteiner, there is very little doubt that the likes of Unai Emery, Ivan Gazidis, Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi will already know everything there is to know about the player. However, this particular game offered some useful insight into what the fans can expect from the 34-year-old fullback. It would certainly have been better if we had the chance to see Granit Xhaka alongside him, but the Arsenal midfielder is still battling against time to be fit for the upcoming tournament.
First of all, it should be pointed out that the quality of players Lichtsteiner was facing at Villareal’s Estadio de la Cerámica was, for lack of a better word, superb. Manchester City’s David Silva played on the left attacking flank for Spain. Behind him, Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta weaved his magic on the left side of midfield.
These two players are very similar. Both are essentially midfielders with considerable experience in playing as wide forwards, and both are, of course, top class. This makes the pair highly interchangeable in attack, and it’s very difficult for a fullback to stay focused for long. And as if that’s not enough, former Chelsea centre-forward Diego Costa kept pulling out wide to the same side and offering himself as an outlet, while Jordi Alba constantly used his pace on the overlap down the touchline. In this way, Lichtsteiner, although helped often enough by the backtracking runs of Stoke City winger Xherdan Shaqiri, found his space constantly overloaded.
However, it would be unfair to say the Swiss veteran defender was anything other than up to the task. As hard as it was, he did keep his focus throughout the game and stopped his opponents a reasonable number of times. When they did get the better of him, it was purely down to their immense quality and strategic overloading of the space he was defending.
Also, he gave them a lot to think about whenever he went forward. At the age of 34, he still boasts considerable pace, and he was quite able and smart enough to exploit the space behind the back of Alba, while Iniesta and Silva simply do not have what it takes to race him down the touchline. A huge percentage of everything Switzerland did up front came down the right flank through Lichtsteiner, helped again by Shaqiri.
It was only fitting that the only goal the Swiss scored also came through his involvement, though in all fairness it should be said that David De Gea in Spain’s goal utterly messed up in that situation. Minute 62 was passing and Spain were in the lead, courtesy of a well-controlled volley from the edge of the box by Alvaro Odriozola, when substitute Breel Embolo found Lichtsteiner coming into the box after escaping the attention of his marker once again. The captain then took a shot with his (weaker) left foot, and it really should have been an easy catch but the Manchester United goalkeeper spilled it straight into the path of left-back Ricardo Rodriguez for a simple tap-in. Even though Spain dominated from start to finish, Switzerland held on – not least thanks to Lichtsteiner – and the game ended 1-1.
It was a fine individual performance from the man that should soon become a Gunner. His leadership was also very notable as he relentlessly offered encouragement to his teammates, especially after their mistakes which were unfortunately plenty. He never let them hang their heads and always invited them to face their vastly superior opposition with determination.
Signing such a player for free even at the age of 34 represents brilliant business. Hopefully, the transfer will be officially confirmed in the coming days.