Chelsea’s Victor Moses … Rediscovered by Antonio Conte

Moses

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.”

Antonio Conte’s Brilliance Has Turned Chelsea’s Pop-up Team into Champions

Conte

London – The manager inherited a mess but has glued together a title-winning side with his tactical nous, fierce work ethic and by bringing back the fun. After an extended, processional run-in that started as a head-down sprint away from the peloton and settled into an imperious push from the front, Chelsea are once again champions of the Premier League. Friday night’s crowning victory at The Hawthorns was the 25th in 30 league matches since Antonio Conte’s decisive re-gearing of his team in September, the tactical switches that have coaxed such a thrilling run from this team of bolt-ons and upcycled squad players, most notably Victor Moses, who was dredged out of the laundry bin in the autumn to become a key part of the title surge.

This feels like a significant league title in more ways than one. It is now 14 years since Roman Abramovich emerged as a spendthrift presence in west London. Five titles and a Champions League win have now sealed Chelsea’s place as the dominant English club of that period. For all the glories of the Ferguson end-game, Manchester City’s rise and Arsenal’s unflinching desire to finish in the top four and occasionally win the FA Cup, this is now Chelsea’s mini-era.

Not to mention confirmation if any were needed of elite English football’s main subtext since the turn of the century, the transformational dominance of overseas billionaire investment. Just as significant in the long term, Chelsea were also granted permission this season for their new on-site mega-stadium, a 60,000-seat upgrade that will mean the current Stamford Bridge is razed and replaced by something that looks like a vast alien space yurt made of giant Martian redwood stems.

It is another pointer toward Abramovich’s vast capital expenditure. But also a firm move towards the oft-promised sustainable future. Such talk chimes with the season just past and with Conte’s own kitchen-sink achievement in taking a team with net spend of £20m this season to a dominant league title.

It is Conte’s part in this that shines through, not just as an example of ruthlessly detailed coaching and man management, but as something new also. There have been 11 changes of manager during that run of Chelsea trophies, with the implication always that the structures and hierarchy are what really keep this club rolling on.

In Conte Chelsea have something different, a manager who inherited a messy, enervated squad fresh from the worst title defense in 25 years and threw a lightning bolt through pretty much the same group of players to create a fresh champion team.

Conte has broken the mold further with the suggestion he might escape the Abramovich cleaver, becoming the first of his line to leave by his own volition. Those recurrent noises in Italy about a move to Internazionale have resurfaced this week. It seems overwhelmingly likely Conte will stay, pay rise pending. But it is a feat of rare political skill to have made himself so unusually vital to the current success.

How has he done it? Attention has focused on the much-celebrated switch to playing a back three after the defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in September. Chelsea were crunching about in reverse gear at the time. Reports have suggested senior management were underwhelmed by performances. Conte had arrived a week early despite spending his summer with Italy at the Euros. Exhausted, he went home during the international break to see his family and brood. On his return the team that faced Hull City had been reconfigured. Moses wasn’t overly drilled, just told he would be playing right wing-back, that Conte had seen enough to know.

It will be tempting to compare that switch to the shift Conte made in his first season at Juventus, when he rejigged his formation to find a way of placing Arturo Vidal at the heart of his team. This was different, a profound resizing of angles and personnel that has made every part clunk into place, with key players given roles that emphasize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

A moment of wider clarity, but one that Conte had been working towards. “It takes time to accept the sheer amount of work he is asking of you,” Luca Marrone, an Italy Under-21 midfielder who played under Conte at Juve told the Guardian this year. “Everything he does, in preparation or tactical organization, is done with maniacal precision and attention to detail. It can be overwhelming at first. But when you realize by buying into it you can win things, you follow.”

Senior players were skeptical to begin with, startled by Conte’s aggressively interventionist training sessions, practice constantly stopped by that barking voice, points of positional detail brutally drilled. In part Conte pulled this off because his manner and his own playing record demand respect. But also he brought back the fun, encouraging a familial atmosphere with barbecues, bottles of wine handed out, and bonding sessions with players and club staff.

N’Golo Kanté embodies both sides of this, a player whose early scratchiness was soothed with glorious results in the new 3-4-3 formation, allowed simply to be his best, most wonderfully mobile, diligent, destructive self. Plus Kanté is something new. Get this: Chelsea have the most popular player in the league, a man nobody could seriously boo, albeit even the notably lovable Kanté is perhaps a little fetishised in his humility, his scooter-riding, the Premier League’s own friendly, scuttling Bilbo Baggins.

The system locked David Luiz into his perfect role, given protection by that meaty wedge in front. Both wing-backs are allowed simply to steam up and down their flanks following the line of possession. The attacking three have also been allowed to bloom. Liberated from deep defensive duties Eden Hazard has become more expressive, more obviously, flashily complete. Not to mention more saleable too, his role closer to the way Europe’s monied giants in Spain and France allow their stars to function.

Where to rank this Chelsea team, even among recent versions at the same club, is another question. Six months old, a half-season project, they are already more watchable and more coherent than the second phase of the title-winning team of two years ago; but not at the level of the luminous, steamrollering Mourinho Mk1 team, a rare concurrence of prime-cut talent and a manager in the sweet spot of his own powers.

But then this is essentially a pop-up team, glued into place brilliantly, with certain parts already chafing and smoking. Chelsea’s two top goalscorers could be off in a month, Diego Costa to cause an international incident in China, Hazard to the usual summer suspects. Plus of course for all the excitement at Conte using only 18 different players in the starting XI in the league, rotation has been stilled only because Chelsea haven’t needed it, often playing only one game a week.

When the team might have tired from that hard-running style they have had days to rest. When first Sam Allardyce and then José Mourinho exposed a certain weakness against a two-man attack, and also when the “supply” players, Hazard and Pedro, were man-marked, Conte had a week to drill his team and patch this up.

Next season will, as ever, be a different matter, another problem for Conte to solve as he looks to extend his personal record of four straight league titles in club football across England and Italy. Given his hunger for more – more time, more detail, more work – only the brave or the foolish would bet against him.

Premier League’s most Improved XI: from Pickford to Pedro, a Team on the up

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Jordan Pickford (Sunderland)

Last season, after returning from a loan stint at Preston, the young goalkeeper had to continue learning his trade by sitting on a bench and contemplating how he might displace Vito Mannone. On-field action was restricted to three appearances during which he conceded nine goals and although those goals were not his fault, he began this season still an understudy to the Italian. Mannone’s injury, however, has given the 22-year-old a steady run in the first team and he has grasped his opportunity as convincingly as he claims crosses. Despite committing a costly blunder against Southampton in his first outing of the season, he has been one of Sunderland’s most reliable performers even when left obscenely exposed by his defence. His saves were a big factor in his club’s first Premier League win of the season against Bournemouth and his performance at White Hart Lane in September, when Hugo Lloris hailed him as amazing, was the main reason Sunderland escaped with only a narrow defeat. At a time of gloom at the Stadium of Light, Pickford has managed to confirm he has a very bright future.

Victor Moses (Chelsea)

Chelsea awarded Moses a new contract in September 2015 but that seemed to be so that they could charge other clubs more for his services rather than play him themselves. Shortly after signing that deal he was loaned to West Ham, who had an option to buy him at the end of last season but decided not to. He would have been farmed out again if Antonio Conte had not thought his potential could finally be harnessed at Chelsea four years after the club originally signed him. In October the Italian switched formation and used Moses as a wing-back for the game against Hull City, giving the Nigeria international his first league start for Chelsea in 1,239 days. Moses performed brilliantly and has continued to do so, his raids down the right an important part of Chelsea’s transformation.

Stephen Ward (Burnley)

When Wolves flunked pitifully out of the Premier League in 2012, few people envisaged Ward returning to the top flight. Frankly it looked a level too far for him. Apparently Wolves’ new manager at the time, Kenny Jackett, did not even think he could help get the club out of the Championship again and so they offloaded him, first on loan to Brighton, where he did well, and then permanently to Burnley, where soon after his arrival he suffered a broken leg. After battling back to fitness he struggled to get into Burnley’s team and had not made a club start for over a year when he made a sensational return to international football by starting Ireland’s 1-0 win over Germany in October 2015. Two months later he finally broke into the Burnley side. And he has been there ever since, helping Sean Dyche’s side to promotion and being a notable part of their solidity so far. He turned 31 a week after the start of his latest Premier League season and his displays at left-back have suggested there is a place for him in the top flight, after all.

Joe Allen (Stoke City)

There was no clamour for the Welshman to be driven out of Anfield: he had done pretty well in his four years at Liverpool without securing a regular spot and he was a smooth cog in Wales’ glorious Euro 2016 campaign. So everyone knew he was good. But only Stoke City were smart enough to realise exactly how good he could be. Their £13m purchase of Allen has emerged as one of the shrewdest deals of the summer. In the early part of the season, when many of his team-mates seemed dazed and confused, his energy and passing in midfield limited Stoke’s embarrassment. Mark Hughes’s decision to shift Allen into a slightly more advanced role helped trigger the team’s improvement and enabled the player to hone his poaching skills, as he scored four goals in three matches to kickstart Stoke’s season.

Oriol Romeu (Southampton)

Last season he was a fringe player at Southampton, now he is the linchpin of the team, the player who, according to Claude Puel, “gives us our structure”. Puel has rotated his players throughout the season as Southampton combine domestic and European duties but Romeu has started all but one of the team’s Premier League and Europa League matches. And he has been excellent in them all. His intelligence and dynamism have enabled him to make the highest number of interceptions in the top flight, his passing is crucial to Southampton’s fluency and his will to win is inspirational, his rousing triple-block against Leicester City being one of the highlights of the season so far. Victor Wanyama, sold in the summer to Tottenham, has not been missed at St Mary’s.

Sam Clucas (Hull City)

It is always satisfying to see a player rise to each new challenge he meets. Clucas did that last season when he joined Hull from Chesterfield and played his part in the club’s promotion. And the 26-year-old began doing it from day one of this season, when he marked his first Premier League match with an excellent performance in midfield to help topple the champions, Leicester. He has continued to perform with exceptional dynamism and high technical proficiency since then even when more experienced team-mates lost form and left him to fend almost by himself in midfield.

Nordin Amrabat (Watford)

The only time that Clucas has looked out of place this season was when he was cast as a left wing-back for the trip to Watford by the Hull manager, Mike Phelan, and then treated as a rag doll by the home team’s winger Amrabat. The Morocco international only flickered last season after his arrival from Málaga in January but this term he has consistently shown how well suited he is to the Premier League. Exceptionally strong for a wide player, he can shoulder opponents out of the way – as James Milner discovered at Anfield before the international break – as well as run or trick his way past them. He has not yet added scoring to his repertoire but he has created several goals, most memorably in the draw at home to Bournemouth, when his flash of magic set up Troy Deeney.

Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

Sterling is only 21 but he already knows what it is like to be vilified by thousands of strangers and a few national newspapers for seeking success, driving cars and getting his hair cut. The people who selectively dislike that sort of behaviour took great pleasure in mocking the youngster’s feeble displays at Euro 2016 on the back of a hit-and-miss first season at Manchester City. He has responded with class. Under Pep Guardiola he has become one of City’s most consistently dangerous players – strong, sharp, canny and daring. Only his finishing remains unconvincing but he has shown signs of improving even that, which is no surprise given his quality and strength of character.

Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Speed is Walcott’s greatest asset but he doesn’t half go slow in reverse. His has been a backwards career: first came the acclaim, then the big transfer, the international recognition, the bumper new contract and then, finally, the consistently outstanding performances, albeit for only a couple of months so far. But he has been irrepressible in most of his 12 appearances this season, seemingly gaining in deadliness after accepting at last that he is best playing out wide and needed to work harder. “Maybe it should have hit me a few years ago but there’s been a change in my whole attitude,” he said in September. The use of “maybe” was remarkable and counsels against declaring him a talent fulfilled just yet, but so far this season’s Walcott has been an upgrade on previous versions.

Eden Hazard (Chelsea)

If there was one thing worse than Chelsea’s attempt to defend their title last season and José Mourinho’s weird unravelling, it was Eden Hazard’s fall from player of the year to waster of the year. The three things were probably related but, whatever was afoot, there were times last term when it was difficult to believe that Real Madrid courted Hazard and easy to imagine him being condemned for crimes against passion. But this season the Belgian is back – and better than ever. His performances, in particular since Antonio Conte adapted the formation to give him more creative freedom, have been often breathtaking, spawned new title ambitions at Stamford Bridge and given fresh life to claims that he could become a great player as opposed to a massive tease.

Pedro (Chelsea)

Like Hazard, Moses and even Diego Costa, the Spaniard has been reborn under Conte and is finally starting to show why there was such excitement when Chelsea signed him from Barcelona last year. His interplay with Hazard and Costa has been among the most effective and eye-catching aspects of Chelsea’s surge up the table over the last five matches. In the summer few Chelsea fans would have been bothered if Pedro had left the club, now no one can really argue against him starting ahead of last season’s player of the year, Willian.

The down side

Here are a team of players whose performances have been below previous levels:

Shay Given; Robert Huth, Lamine Koné, Chris Smalling; Wayne Routledge, Giannelli Imbula, Mark Noble, Cesc Fàbregas; Wayne Rooney, Odion Ighalo, Jamie Vardy

The Guardian Sport