With an agreement to sign Diego Costa now in place, here are a few thoughts about the striker and how he might fit into José Mourinho’s Chelsea.
In many ways Diego Costa is the embodiment of José Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. A bellicose, gritty and imperfect striker, he spearheaded Atlético Madrid’s remarkable title winning campaign. Costa shares Mourinho’s indomitable spirit and as a focal point there are few who lead the line as well. His aggression, movement and power are salient qualities that have been missing from Chelsea’s docile attack. Gianfranco Zola went as far as saying that Costa represented “the missing part of the puzzle”.
Chelsea fans in general are naturally cautious about any striker coming to the club. Only Didier Drogba has truly excelled in the Roman era. Nicolas Anelka proved useful and Hernán Crespo looked phenomenal in patches but could not settle. The scars of Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres’ transfers are still very raw. Having wasted around £130m on strikers, tantamount to buying Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani, it is easy to see where the trepidation stems from.
Our greatest mistake last year was to spend over £100m and not buy an elite striker when one was available. The aforementioned Cavani and Falcao went for around £55m-£60m each, but signing just one of them may have delivered a league title. That elite category of striker is unavailable this summer, at least for that sort of money. Chelsea have therefore acted out of necessity, and at £32m Costa could prove to be exceptional.
There are undoubtedly wider issues concerning the balance of the team that need to be addressed. A static midfield incapable of moving the ball at speed; lopsided and unadventurous full-back play and shot-shy attacking midfielders certainly did not aid the cause. Nonetheless, lacking a prominent goal scorer was painfully obvious. Manchester City had four players scoring over twenty goals, Liverpool had two and even Arsenal’s much maligned Olivier Giroud scored twenty-two times. Chelsea’s entire strike force managed thirty-one goals last season with a paltry nineteen goals coming in the league.
In the case of Manchester City and Liverpool they had talismanic figures in Sergio Agüero and Luis Suárez leading the line. What Agüero and Suárez give to their teams is more than you can quantify in terms of goals. The speed of play, space for team mates and overall confidence level of those around them increase. This intangible quality is something that Diego Costa possesses.
After his extremely disappointing showing at the World Cup, where Costa looked bereft of match fitness, questions were asked concerning Costa’s suitability. In a World Cup that saw Spain torn between their past and their future, Costa looked lost. People will jump to conclusions about a certain player essentially on the last game he has played. His performances for Spain were apparently enough to discount an entire season of exceptional form. Perhaps it is time to rationally address some of those concerns.
We are ultimately buying Diego Costa on the back of his success at Atlético Madrid: a side who are the antithesis of the Spanish national team stylistically. John Terry looked horrific in André Villas-Boas’ defensive high line, could barely get a game under Rafael Benitez, yet has returned to playing at an extremely high standard this season. The same applies to Costa with Spain. His natural movement and tendencies are at odds with Spain’s tiki-taka principles.
Should you judge Costa basis the World Cup? Unequivocally no, but I would say that for any player. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski clearly make the point in the excellent Soccernomics about the perils of buying and evaluating players after a major international tournament. Not only are their prices grossly inflated, but the tendency to ignore a season’s worth of form for a handful of games in isolation is surprisingly strong.
It is therefore worth stressing again that Chelsea are buying the Diego Costa on the strength of his performances for Atlético Madrid. As a support act to Falcao he bagged twenty goals in all competitions and this was mostly playing out wide. Yet, it was his explosion this season as a powerful and efficient goal scorer that really made people sit up and take note. Chelsea are looking to play a brand of football closer to Atlético Madrid than to Spain, so it makes sense to at least tailor your opinion on his performances for Los Rojiblancos.
Costa is not a classical representation of the number nine position, but his suitability to what Mourinho wants is undeniable. He is a great goal scorer, not a scorer of great goals. This has, oddly, been a frequent criticism that I have seen of him. Until football starts awarding goals on artistic merit I will take fifteen scrappy goals where Costa is actually in the right place over the occasional wonder strike.
Chelsea need a physical and goal scoring presence; this is exactly what Costa provides. Given the doubts surrounding Costa there will be extensive pressure placed upon him to ignite Chelsea’s attack this coming season. I also dread to think what the majority thought of Didier Drogba when Chelsea signed him on the back of a campaign playing in France and the UEFA Cup.
With all the above being said I am quite optimistic that Costa can succeed at Chelsea. Given the nature of it being Chelsea and how these things play out it is unlikely that Costa will be afforded a season to bed in. The almost rapturous slating of him by BBC and ITV pundits should already let you know that the media want him to fail. Costa must hit the ground running at Chelsea; he needs to be fully fit for the first game of the season.
So what are we getting for our £32m? Michael Cox of Zonal Marking acclaim sums Costa up perfectly: “A snarling, indefatigable centre-forward who hunts down opponents relentlessly, who works the channels tirelessly, and who has improved his goalscoring record significantly over the past 18 months. Beautiful to watch on the ball, horrible to watch when he starts getting angry, Costa is a terrifying opponent”.
For a team that is losing so much experience this summer the initial thing to note about Costa is that he is a complete leader. He will pick a team up, place them on his back and drive them forward. So many times this season games that appear to be plateauing have been lifted by an injection from Costa.
He is no angel and he will win at any costs, notably winding Sergio Ramos and Pepe up to within an inch of their life. It is these little things that can spark a team and a crowd during a game. He walks the line of madness very finely at times, but having someone willing to consistently run through brick walls for the shirt is a welcome departure from our current strike force.
After Costa split his shin to the bone in the act of scoring against Getafe, Diego Simeone quipped “another scratch doesn’t hurt a tiger”. Sid Lowe suggested that this particular goal neatly summed up everything Costa stood for as a player: “the determination, the fight and the sacrifice, so competitive it hurts”. José Luis Mendilibar often played him “virtually on his own” and was particularly effusive in his praise stating that Costa has a “fantastic capacity for occupying four defenders on his own. He has this trick of not really looking as good as he actually is”.
Mendilibar took it further as he explained that Costa “[…] doesn’t look particularly quick, or technically that good, but he is far faster and talented than it seems. Sometimes it seems that he is one step away from losing the ball, he doesn’t appear to have it under control, but he keeps it and more often than not he finishes. He also had that mala leche (attitude/edge)”.
Lowe finishes his assessment by stating that “Costa is the striker for whom no defender is too big or too mean, no fight to be shirked and no ball lost, for whom every punt is a pass. The first time you see him dribble past a defender, he appears fortunate; the fifth time he does not. He seems to be bundling through, not entirely in control, but he invariably gets there. And when he does he invariably finishes”.
Signing Costa is almost certainly an indication of how Mourinho wants to play next season. While talk of tactics and shape are almost lost in terms of fluidity these days I would anticipate a mixture of 4231/433. Mourinho must release the handbrake. A less conservative approach against weaker opponents should be advocated. We are far too patient, slow and diffident in possession. Fàbregas’ arrival instantly elevates the quality of our distribution and one would hope that a top class box-to-box midfielder is also added to make us formidable in that area.
Costa ultimately allows Chelsea to play direct, quick and incisive football against lesser sides. Moreover, he is a huge counterattacking threat. There is no need to rotate strikers depending on opposition. Costa should be the focal point of the attack against a side parking the bus and someone who will look to dominate possession. He should improve our counterattacking quality where we need to play in that fashion and his dynamism should open up the pitch against teams intent on putting ten men behind the ball.
Costa’s key strength is his movement. Having played on the wing and being something of a street footballer until he was nearing his 20s, there is an innate rhythm in his capacity to find space and locate the ball in the penalty area. While his goals are not thirty-yard screamers his movement is phenomenal. Just looking at his goals scored last season you can see his array of feints, well timed runs and natural feel for where the ball is going to land. People are going to be impressed more by someone belting a shot into the top corner from distance, but Chelsea need someone capable of finding the space to shoot against packed opposition.
The way he links with his midfield is crucial and something that should be mirrored at Chelsea. Costa is always extremely quick to react to any transition and his awareness of both team mates and opposition players allows him to quickly move into superb areas. A lot of his goals or attacking moments come from when the game is in transition.
However, when teams have sat back against Atlético Madrid his comfort in playing in wide areas and ability to pick the ball from deep and drive at defenders is invaluable. He draws an incredible amount of fouls and his directness with the ball will make life difficult for teams who do not possess decent one-on-one tacklers.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Costa will make is that he will quicken up Chelsea’s pedestrian tempo. So much of Chelsea’s play stagnates through a lack of incisive passing in midfield. We lack players willing to play the quick and at times difficult pass. However, the complete lack of movement or threat at centre forward is equally culpable. Some key additions this summer will naturally improve this, but any player within the team is triggered by their centre forward when it comes to movement. It is no coincidence that when Drogba occupied both centre-backs, Lampard would ghost into the penalty area and score time-and-time again.
Costa has the ability to occupy and threaten an entire back four over the course of a match. He expertly peels wide to open up lanes for midfielders to advance into. As centre backs are unsure whether he is looking to exploit the channel between full-back and centre back or simply pull wide, it often creates space. Koke spoke of his almost telepathic understanding with Costa at length over the previous season. The space made by Costa and the understanding he develops with Chelsea’s chief creators will be a crucial element in our progress next year.
This ability to occupy defenders and threaten across every channel finally means that teams cannot simply look to stop Chelsea’s left hand side and expect results. You would hope that with a naturally left footed full-back and Diego Costa stalking up front teams venturing down the “stop Hazard and you stop Chelsea” route may have slightly more to think about. The ability to peel from his marker into the space left between full-back and centre back is his trademark.
His ability to adapt to a direct game where he brings people in play, act as a counterattacking threat or simply pull a defence around are wonderful assets. However, it is his finishing quality that will really determine Costa’s impact at Chelsea. He needs to be aiming for 20-30 goals this season – a decent target if Hazard moves to taking penalties on a full-time basis.
I personally love the directness that Costa will bring to the side. If given the ball you know he is always going to be positive in possession. I think at times last season our strikers were so negative or incapable of retaining possession that opposition sides barely acknowledged they were on the pitch. Costa brings an entirely different puzzle for people to solve as he can dribble extremely well, particularly when you consider the size of him. There is this unorthodox way that he drives at teams, much like Luis Suárez, that makes him extremely difficult to handle.
He could be better when attacking the ball in the air from crosses, but there should be no concerns with his hold up play. If you ping the ball towards Costa it tends to stick and Chelsea can finally start to play with second phase runners from midfield on a frequent basis. How many times has Torres in particular won a flick on or knock down to only have no one near him? That stems from players not willing to make the run because there is no trust in him (or Ba) in retaining the ball.
Costa has shown on numerous occasions that when he plays with his back to goal he can bring people into play. Playing Hazard into the type of space Arda Turan enjoyed on a regular basis where he only has his full-back to beat would be beyond dangerous.
Costa scored twenty-seven goals in the Primera División last season. Twenty-two of those came against sides outside the top five. With five goals in eight games against direct title rivals. Taking a look at when he scores goals is also interesting. I personally feel the mark of a top striker is not necessarily accurately reflected in the number of goals he scores, but when he actually scores them. People will differ on this but is the third goal in a 3-0 win as important as an equaliser, winning goal or the opening goal in a game?
So many strikers with obscene numbers fall into this category. Drogba was someone who did not always hit twenty goals a season at Chelsea. However, the percentage of his goals that were “important” were staggering. Of Costa’s goals last season over 50% were important. For comparison (and comparison only) Luis Suárez came in around 25%. Costa’s impact will be judged solely on the goals he scores. That is a fact of any strikers life. However, I do hope that Costa’s overall contribution is tangible enough that people notice the impact he has on the rest of the team.
The ultimate question in all this is simply how much of an impact will Costa have on this Chelsea side? It is always difficult to call transfers, but I do remain hopeful that Costa bucks the recent trend Chelsea have developed with strikers. Is he perfect? No. Is he going to score thirty-yard wonder goals? Maybe. Will he give absolutely everything for the shirt? Absolutely. It is this last criterion that I am perhaps most disappointed with Chelsea’s current crop of strikers. Leaving Stamford Bridge after a tepid display where your striker has not even broken into a sweat is always disheartening.
We can bemoan the lack of attempt to sign a truly outstanding striker last summer all we like. That is in the past. What matters now is that Mourinho has opted to pin his Chelsea future on the chest of Diego Costa. It is not a stretch to say that Mourinho may well have to win something next season to keep himself at the club. While the long-term plan is definitely taking shape, if Mourinho’s plans to re-establish the club are to come to fruition this season must be successful. It is not something I necessarily like, but our track record hardly screams patience.
Andres Iniesta told a Spanish newspaper that Costa had “shown almost unbeatable performance levels” over the course of last season. We can only hope that he brings the same hunger and desire to Stamford Bridge. This seems to be the first time in an eternity that Chelsea are actually buying a player to suit the system, rather than pigeonhole someone into a role they are unfamiliar with. For that alone, regardless of your opinion on Costa, we should be thankful that the club are actually on the same page.
Costa has shown a huge desire to actually learn and improve over the past two seasons. His development is down to an insatiable work ethic and supreme coaching. Working with Simeone has elevated him and I would hope that working with Mourinho has a similar long-term effect. If Mourinho can build upon what already exists and Costa can slot seamlessly into being the spearhead for Chelsea’s attack then we will be getting a superbly gifted player with even greater potential.
Costa is by no means a finished product and the synergies with Didier Drogba when he came to Chelsea are stark. I can only hope that Mourinho continues the excellent work that Simeone has started and that Costa’s rapid rate of improvement does not stop. He may be borderline mental, completely imperfect and at times a little too aggressive, but he is a goal scorer physically built for Premier League football. It will take time for him to adapt; given the general divide surrounding his signing the jury is certainly out. I for one prefer to be optimistic.
Anything can happen in terms of this signing, but I am comfortable that the club have actually thought about Costa and how he fits into Mourinho’s plans. If the summer goes as planned then Costa should be leading a very different looking Chelsea team. One way or another it it is going to be exciting.