The Nigeria international reunites with the manager who revived him at Chelsea, but he may become the stick with which critics beat the Inter boss
Finally, with an announcement that had been somewhat spoiled by Romelu Lukaku embracing the well-worn Italian tradition of visually documenting meal times, Internazionale announced they had gotten their man.
It perhaps would be more accurate to describe him as Antonio Conte’s man, however. This is, after all, the second time the former Juventus and Chelsea manager has descended, flaming wings flayed, to deliver Victor Moses from a very personal hell.
Their two seasons together at Stamford Bridge saw both men at their absolute best: the Nigeria international chugging down the line on the right, and Conte puffing and hooting on the sideline (as is his wont) en route to an unlikely but nevertheless record-setting title triumph.
The decisions to cast Moses as a wing-back in the back-three system that now appears to be the imperative of the Italian manager was not an apparent one from the off. He had, prior to Conte’s arrival, endured a rather frustrating time with the Blues: injuries, unedifying loans and, to cap it all, the cold shoulder from a Jose Mourinho who, as England international Harry Winks has already learnt this season, is not given to explaining his reasons for mistrusting a particular player.
In that light, it must have been a relief that, rather than dismiss him out-of-hand as his predecessor had done, Conte saw value in keeping Moses around. “At the start of the season I said to the club that I had to have a look at him, because I wanted to assess him with my own eyes,” he said at the time.
“I’m pleased to have him in our squad. He’s a fantastic player and a fantastic man as well, and this is important for me.”
Re-tooled and for the first time since joining from Wigan Athletic, properly integrated, Moses was a purposely, menacing presence scampering forward for Chelsea, he and Marcos Alonso key in stretching opponents by forming essentially a front five in attack (alongside the centre-forward and the two inside-forwards). It was, and is (as Kwadwo Asamoah, who has twice carried the responsibility for Conte sides attests) a demanding role.
“It takes a lot of physical energy to do this job,” he admits.
“Conte wants the wing-backs, every time we have the ball, we need to be as forward as possible, where the attackers are. For us wing-backs, the task is to push when there’s something to do and defend when there’s something to defend. Sometimes, it’s even time to shoot on goal.”
It was a brief to which Moses’ natural athleticism and fitness was eminently suited, and his effectiveness sparked not just a Premier League title, but also a resurgence of the back three in the Premier League. If imitation was not an adequate form of flattery, then forcing Mourinho’s Manchester United to defend with a back six whenever they crossed paths must have been particularly satisfying for the then 25-year-old.
They reunite in altogether different surroundings, and the circumstances are also quite a departure from September 2016 when Conte had his eureka moment midway through a 3-0 trouncing at the Emirates Stadium.
Inter are by no means in dire straits: sure, the unlikely draw against Lecce at the weekend saw the gap to Juventus widen to four points at the top of Serie A, but for the most part the Beneamata have chugged along quite nicely all season. Five draws is a lot, but only within the context of chasing a hegemonic behemoth like the Old Lady.
In the final analysis, Moses has been brought in to satisfy Conte’s cavilling, a habit that has manifested itself at every job so far in his managerial career. The only thing the 50-year-old likes more than new signings is complaining about not getting new signings, and it is an act that, while transparent to the media, seems to still have currency with the Inter hierarchy.
Antonio Candreva has been one of Inter’s more impressive performers this term and, even accounting for the fact that the highly-rated Valentino Lazaro has not quite hit the heights that were expected of him, the arrival of Ashley Young would have sufficed to address any potential shortfall at right wing-back anyway.
Essentially, Moses is a further act of pacifism from the owners.
However, there is a sense in which the Nigeria international is the ultimate Trojan horse.
When Inter made the play for Conte last summer, it was implicitly understood his remit was to break the wheel Juventus’ dominance. To that end, the club went through a not-insignificant outlay in the transfer market, even aside from the wages for the manager and his backroom.
In came Romelu Lukaku, the striker he had sought for so long while at Chelsea; Stefano Sensi, Antonio Barella, Diego Godin, Alexis Sanchez—there was little expense spared to provide the tools, both in terms of vitality and experience, needed for the job.
A mild injury crisis in midfield in October and November saw concerns raised over depth, and sent Conte off on another rant. There has now been a deliberate attempt to address his displeasure; if anything, the club have gone overboard: what, you want a wing-back, Antonio? Here, have two!
In these circumstances, if Inter fall further behind and fail to reel in Juventus, there can be no question whatsoever as to whose table the buck will stop at. It will be Conte’s shortcoming, and no one else’s.
It is a good thing then that, beyond the usual manager-player relationship, there is a unique sense of residual loyalty toward the Italian on Moses’ part. By his own admission, the faith Conte showed in him made all the difference three years ago.
“I want to repay the confidence of the manager,” he said at the time. Well, with Conte essentially backing him to be the lasso that reels Juventus in, the stakes are even higher.