COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
In a poetic way, the perfect counter to the philosophical argument against individual awards in football is to put forward Victor Moses. In the Chelsea man's triumph is an arc remarkable enough to transcend even the most purist of inclinations.
It might be worth it to return to the arrival of Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2016. In the beginning, the Italian toyed with a 4-2-4, before settling on 4-3-3 as his preferred system. However, the 4-3-3 was without form, in more ways than one: a 3-0 September loss at Arsenal was a second on the bounce, and was underpinned by such haplessness as to characterize the shape as entirely void.
What followed was a stunning turnaround: a radical change of shape, animated by the repurposing of Moses as an ersatz wing-back.
Mind, the fact that the 26-year-old was available and on hand for said repurposing was in itself an improvement on his previous fortunes. Loans at Liverpool, West Ham United and Stoke City had begin to lend an air of futility to Moses's continued employment in West London, and the stewardship of Conte's predecessor Jose Mourinho had done little to make him feel pivotal to the Chelsea project.
However, when the former Juventus boss came on board, he moved immediately to reassure Moses, declaring himself impressed by the Nigeria international.
“I could see his potential from the first days of the summer training camp,” Conte told Gazzetta dello Sport. “Moses has important qualities: technique, physical strength, the ability to cover 70 metres of the pitch. I find it incredible that someone like him has been underestimated."
Conte is due credit for spotting what many failed to, and when the time came for something radical to turn around the Blues' fortunes, there was no doubt for Conte who would play that peculiar right wing-back role.
Moses described it thus to Sky Sports: “It was the first day of training after the defeat to Arsenal.
"We saw ourselves in different positions in training. I saw myself in a different position and I thought ‘Am I playing right wing or am I playing right-back?’
"During that time he was talking to me, saying ‘this is what you’ve got to do, this is how you’re meant to play this position’."
The effect of this bold move is what sets Moses apart from his peers. While he lacks the sheer fantasy numbers of Mohamed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his edge is in his transformative influence; the facilitation of the whole, akin to a binding agent, means that on a scale, his level in 2017 exceeds all others.
Chelsea went on a run of 13 straight victories, shooting to the top of the Premier League pile, and would not relinquish their primacy. A second league title in three years, having finished the previous season way down in 10th place, marked a significant reversal.
It would of course be simplistic to give the credit for this entirely to Moses. Diego Costa's militant football was vital upfront, Eden Hazard tied opponents in knots, N'Golo Kante stampeded through midfield game after game, while Cesar Azpilicueta was tremendous in defence. Moses was handily outscored by his counterpart on the opposite flank, free-kick specialist Marcos Alonso; in the part of 2016/2017 under review, he played 20 games in all competitions and assisted thrice.
However, there is a sense at Chelsea that he, more than most, is the irreplaceable element within Antonio Conte's set-up. Consider the exigency of their need, and the particular nature of a specialist position, and the answer to the question of whether the Blues would have won the Premier League without him is a firm "no".
Isn't that the point of football? That a collection of individuals can transcend their own personal abilities and elevate the whole?
The argument that, while goals are great and decisive, they are not in themselves a broader indicator of a good team is one which may seem counterintuitive, but its logic is easy to establish with an important example.
For all that Aubameyang scored by the truckload, his Borussia Dortmund would finish the season with only the DFB Pokal, and seeking a new manager. The first half of 2017/2018 has seen them cycle through two helmsmen already, and is illustrative: irrespective of the general health of the team around him, the Gabon international has hit 21 in all competitions.
In adjudging individual awards in a team sport, the input of the individual must necessarily be viewed within the context of the team. Anything less, and it becomes simply an ego-vehicle, the celebration of flash over substance.
Not to put down the Dortmund hit man, of course, but his case is even less appealing when we consider contributions on the international scene. Whereas Salah, Moses and Sadio Mane were beacons for their respective nations, Aubameyang was disappointing for Gabon, underwhelming at the Cup of Nations and then retreating into solitude on 'personal' grounds.
While he distanced himself from international duty, the others shone in World Cup qualifying, and will all three headline the World Cup in Russia in 2018. However, Moses stands apart in that his role of roving wide playmaker with Nigeria is such a complete departure from his Chelsea incarnation, and is a marker of both the completeness of his skillset and his dedication to serving the collective by being what his team needs him to be.
Arguably, it is a greater test of footballing ability to fit into the framework of the whole than to have the whole tailored to harness the individual.
There is a bit of chicken and egg, admittedly, but as we have established, goalscoring can exist independent of wholesome team play. If Player of the Year awards seek to reward ability, then a forward who has eschewed the limelight in order to play an unfamiliar role, to the end that the collective is more balanced would seem a worthier recipient.
Victor Moses may not have been the most prolific African footballer in 2017, but he without a doubt was the most instrumental.