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Fading Stephan Lichtsteiner proves England is no country for old men

The Swiss, 35, signed on a free last summer, was ruthlessly exposed by Manchester City on Sunday

Stephan Lichtsteiner was arguably at fault for all three of Manchester City's goals on Sunday. Reuters
Stephan Lichtsteiner was arguably at fault for all three of Manchester City's goals on Sunday. Reuters

There was something moving, almost elegiac, about it. Cesc Fabregas left Chelsea accepting that “physicality goes away from us all". His footballing brain remains as sharp as ever, his right foot as classy. The problem lay in his legs. Fabregas is only 31 and if his decline is premature, it also showed the cruelties of the ageing process, especially in an increasingly high-paced Premier League. He left for a more sedate style of football in France.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Fabregas’ former club and Stephan Lichtsteiner. More than three years Fabregas’ senior, the Swiss exchanged Serie A for Arsenal last summer. Given the differences between the leagues, it felt brave, as though a chess player had suddenly switched to cross-country running.

Lichtsteiner is 35. Only nine older players have appeared in this season’s Premier League. Four are goalkeepers. One other, Jermain Defoe, has already left the division. Of the remaining quartet, only Glenn Murray has begun more than one-third of league games. It is only a few years since Ryan Giggs excelled in the top flight at 39, but that feels another era and he, in any case, was an extraordinary anomaly. Now England is no country for old men. The emphasis on pressing and directness, with Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino’s influence spreading across the division, has come at a cost to the elderly. Lichtsteiner, once nicknamed “the Swiss Express” in his Juventus days, is too slow now.

Sunday amounted to a traumatic experience for him. Manchester City scored three goals. He was at least partly at fault for all three. The providers were Aymeric Laporte, once, and Raheem Sterling, twice: City’s left-sided duo. Lichtsteiner is entitled to argue that Alex Iwobi, who lost the ball for the first, afforded him too little protection; that Arsenal were swamped by a dominant City; that he would have only been a back-up had Hector Bellerin been fit.

But Bellerin is out for the season. Lichtsteiner was exposed, such a liability that some Arsenal fans wondered if the forgotten man Carl Jenkinson – who has made two league appearances for the club since May 2014 – would be a better bet. Certainly, with Bellerin’s season curtailed, the midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles looks an altogether superior choice. But he, too, was injured. When fit, Maitland-Niles should be preferred for the next three months. He may be a makeshift, but at least he has a future.

Lichtsteiner’s status as an agent provocateur, to put it politely, may mean sympathy for him is limited among his fellow players. Yet it is tempting to argue his afternoon could have been still worse. Pep Guardiola benched Leroy Sane, still faster and more direct than Sterling. The German could have destroyed the Swiss. As it is, a player of his pedigree – a Uefa Champions League finalist, a seven-time Serie A champion, winner of a century of caps – scarcely merited such ignominy.

If some of the blame lies with him and some, given the myriad other issues in a porous defence, with his teammates, some lies with Arsenal. Comparatively short of funds, needing to split their transfer budget several ways, they picked up Lichtsteiner on a free transfer.

Sometimes clubs trap themselves in a spiral where they find themselves trying to correct past mistakes on an annual basis. Having signed a right-back last summer, Arsenal will need another one this, unless Maitland-Niles is rebranded as such. If Lichtsteiner supposedly cost nothing, it has proved a false economy nonetheless. Arsenal take 2.05 points in games he doesn't start, just 1.42 when he does. Without him, their form is good enough for a top-four finish. With him, it certainly is not.

Updated: February 4, 2019 02:24 PM

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