London – It was a decision that would change his career at Chelsea forever. But as Victor Moses prepared to embark on his fifth season at Stamford Bridge since joining from Wigan Athletic in 2012, the first he knew of it was when Antonio Conte broke the news before their trip to Hull City on October 1.
“He didn’t say to me: ‘Do you fancy playing wing-back?’ He just put me in there,” Moses recalled after the 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough on Monday that took Chelsea to within three points of a fifth Premier League title.
“After that he just kept on encouraging me and went through it with me, what the position was all about, mostly in training. And constantly he was talking to me in training to make sure I was improving in it, talking me through it. I took that in and I didn’t look back.”
Nearly a decade since he made his first-team debut at Crystal Palace at the age of 16, Moses has finally come of age. The schoolboy superstar who arrived in London as an asylum seeker after his parents were brutally murdered during religious riots in Nigeria’s north-western Kaduna province in 2002 is now an integral part of the Chelsea team having spent the best part of four years on the bench or on loan.
Before this season he had made only 12 Premier League starts for his parent club, with the spells at Liverpool, Stoke City and West Ham United having failed to convince José Mourinho of his worth. The arrival of Conte, who admitted he found it “incredible” how sparingly his predecessor had utilized him, changed all that. Moses has played an integral part in the Italian’s 3-4-3 system.
“I have always believed in the ability that I have got,” Moses reflected. “I have always known that I’ve got the ability to play in a big club like Chelsea. I have proved that. We have got a manager here that is willing to give everybody an opportunity.
“To be honest, I just wanted to play football,” he added. “It was at Hull that it all started. I really enjoyed it and I took everything in. I kept watching the video of myself after the Hull game, to make sure I was in the right place, and after that I took it in and kept on improving.”
A regular in England’s youth teams, Moses opted to switch allegiance to Nigeria in 2011 after growing frustrated with his lack of recognition. He was voted into the team of the tournament when the Super Eagles won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations but had struggled to replicate that form for his country until the appointment of Gernot Rohr as coach last year. Now, with Nigeria in a strong position to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia thanks to two goals from Moses against Algeria in November, he has emerged as a real contender to be named African player of the year.
“If Victor Moses wants to be [Lionel] Messi, he can be Messi,” said Daniel Amokachi, who was the assistant to Nigeria’s coach, Stephen Keshi, in 2013 and also comes from Kaduna. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a player who has so many qualities. We have talked a lot. And what I told him, I told him every time. If you want to be the best that you can, then you have to work harder. In the past he was a player who can sometimes switch off. You speak to people who train with [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Messi and they tell you it is incredible how hard they work. That seems to have sunk in now thanks to Conte.”
The overall statistics do not necessarily bear that out in comparison with some of the best right-backs in the league, although Chelsea’s win percentage of 81 when Moses is in the side certainly speaks volumes.
In terms of distance covered, he is way behind Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker (272km to 312km from 32 games), while he also trails Everton’s Séamus Coleman in terms of goals and assists (three goals and two assists to Coleman’s four goals and three assists). Yet it has been his ability to adapt to Conte’s refined tactical approach which has underlined his importance to the champions-elect.
“It’s a big position. You need a lot of stamina to be able to play there, and it’s a responsibility,” said Moses. “I have been learning a lot defensively as well, the manager has been teaching me and I have taken everything in. When I play against a winger, because I’m a winger myself, I understand what they are going to do before they try and go past me, so it makes it a lot easier for me. The more games I play the better I get.”