The very essence of effecting managerial change in football is to improve on the previous manager’s work. Surely Chelsea’s decision to hire Antonio Conte stemmed from their desire to appoint a manager with an eye for detail who was capable of tightening up a stunningly mediocre defence that shipped 53 goals last term in perhaps the worst title defence of the modern era. It was therefore surprising that Chelsea under Conte continued with the same leaky backline, shape and formation that cost Jose Mourinho his job in December; wasn’t the new manager supposed to come with new ideas to freshen things up?
Instead, Conte continued with Branislav Ivanovic, a walking liability for the past 12 months; David Luiz, a panic buy from PSG after Chelsea failed to land their priority signings and Gary Cahill, who looks shockingly out of depth and has made the most errors leading to goals in the Premier League this season. The Italian is wedded to a variation of the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 system that allows for three centre-backs and two wingbacks. The wingbacks serve a dual purpose: bombing forward to join the attack and providing defensive cover whenever the team are under the cosh. The system served him so well during his time at Juventus and Italy but he was seemingly reluctant to give it a try in England.
Perhaps deploying the system with exponents of the trade in Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli is an entirely different ball game to implementing it with the creaky defence at his disposal in SW6. As Louis van Gaal’s brief and unsuccessful dalliance with playing three centre-backs showed, maybe the system is just totally unsuited for English football. However, the draw at Swansea and humiliating losses to Liverpool and Arsenal as well as the injury suffered by the ageing John Terry forced Conte’s hand, and he promptly switched to a back three at Hull. Chelsea have since won two games by a margin of five goals, and no player epitomises the club’s newfound comfort with the system better than Victor Moses.
The headline story since Conte’s arrival has been Cesc Fabregas continually finding himself out of favour with his new manager and after being hauled off early in the second half against Arsenal, Moses has taken his place in the side – albeit not like for like – to become one of the most important Chelsea players at the moment - which is a sentence that still feels odd given the trajectory of his Stamford Bridge career up until this point. Leicester were comprehensively dispatched on Saturday, and it was telling to hear what Conte had to say about the win.
“In the week we tried a lot to find a solution that gave us more compactness,“ Conte said. "For this team and squad this system is the right fit. The coach must understand and find the right suit. We are like a tailor.”
The analogy rehashes the point he made at his unveiling back in July “that the manager, the coach is like a tailor. A tailor who must build a dress, the best dress for the team.” Even if the sartorial analogy feels a bit laboured, the idea Conte speaks of is that he has to continually hem and saw until the perfect fit is found. Against Leicester, Chelsea wore the perfect suit to their lunchtime date, and Moses was a worthy apprentice to his master.
With Cesar Azpilicueta, Luiz and Cahill the three centre-backs, Moses and Marcos Alonso played as wingbacks, thus providing the balance needed to make playing a high line against Leicester’s pacy front two of Ahmed Musa and Jamie Vardy work. At first glance it was a high-risk strategy bordering on dereliction of duty to attempt to make it work but with Conte knowing that the key to stop Vardy from getting up and running is stop the long-balls from Danny Drinkwater or Marc Albrighton on the flanks. Conte ensured N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic pressed the Leicester midfield into submission and Alonso and Moses denied Albrighton and Jeffrey Schlupp the chance to create chances on either flank.
Moses made his name as an exciting winger with pace and trickery, has played his entire career as an attacker on either flank wherever he has been, and with his experience as a right-winger limited to 180 minutes, his adaptation to the new role has been interesting to watch. As a life-long winger, his defensive contributions during phases of Leicester attack were impressive, more so given Pedro was afforded the freedom to not track back as Mourinho would likely have instructed him to. Moses stuck with Schlupp all game, and although he was a tad fortunate not to give away a penalty, the Nigerian had an impeccable afternoon and the stats make for pleasant reading.
He successfully completed the two tackles he attempted, had two clearances and two interceptions; he was an all-action figure in Chelsea’s demolition of the champions. Moses’ attacking tendencies also came in handy; the 3-4-3 meant Pedro – who played ahead of Moses – tucked in to allow the newly minted wingback the freedom of the entire right flank. It was tailor-made for him. Moses is at his most effective when he has space ahead of him to run at defenders, and it was his purposeful run down Leicester’s left flank that forced the corner from which Diego Costa opened the scoring. His afternoon’s work was complete with a well-deserved goal after some nice interplay with Nathaniel Chalobah. That was his second Premier League goal in seven appearances; last season he managed only one goal in 29 appearances for West Ham.
Moses has taken a circuitous route to first-team recognition at Chelsea after three loan spells during his first four years at Stamford Bridge and it appeared counterproductive, foolish even, when he decided to stay behind when a loan move seemed the more sensible option. However, Conte has shown that he picks his team based on player malleability to the system and Moses has been the obvious beneficiary. Moses’ willingness to work hard and harry and hassle opponents stands in him good stead in his manager’s feverish approach to the game. Emanuele Giaccherini was trusted at the Euros to fulfil the same task Moses has been handed now, proof that Conte is not averse to giving players the opportunity to impress him however unconventional the role or their journey to the top may be. Moses has fit in well all thanks to his talent, enthusiasm and seamster of a manager who continuously chops and changes.