I once spent most of an evening being eyeballed by Diego Costa. At least that’s what I thought was happening. I was in a pub in central London and whenever I looked up there he was, that dark, heavy browed, older-than-his-years face glowering at me from across the room. As you can probably imagine it was not an enjoyable experience; the Chelsea and Spain man has a nasty reputation and the look he was giving me was not friendly. It was scant consolation when I realised after a while that, being overdue for both a shave and a haircut, I had actually just been catching my own eye in a mirror on the other side of the bar.
The discovery of this resemblance was even more upsetting for me than if he had been eyeballing me because I didn’t like Diego Costa – why would you? He was a Chelsea player for a start and apparently so disagreeable that he had taken the unusual step of playing for then world champions Spain rather than Brazil, the nation of his birth. Then there was his style of play.
A striker whose physical style might charitably be described as ‘uncompromising’, Costa’s gamesmanship at times tips over into the cartoonishly villainous. The performance that demonstrated this most perfectly came against Arsenal in September 2015.
Costa spent the entirety of the first half in combat with Arsenal’s centre half pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, pushing, shoving, jostling and on more than one occasion actually slapping Koscielny in the face. Following a particularly nasty altercation between Costa and Koscielny, Gabriel came to his teammate’s aid, a move which, with a grim inevitability, proved to be his undoing.
Costa didn’t miss a beat and moved seamlessly from his feud with Koscielny to chastising his hapless countryman, circling him like a colossal, hairy bluebottle endlessly chuntering away into his ear. I expect we will never know exactly what he was saying but we all know that it could best be translated as “Wouldn’t it be a really good idea if you hit me?” Eventually Gabriel, not with any great venom, but almost with the air of someone who knew it was the only way to make the talking stop, flicked out in Costa’s general direction with his foot.
At this point the Chelsea striker performed a split-second transformation from gnarled South American footballer to faded southern belle, almost fainting dead away with the shock of what the Arsenal defender had done. The full chutzpah of this performance would be familiar to anyone who has a younger sibling.
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Gabriel was promptly given his marching orders as his team succumbed to a 2-0 defeat. Costa, meanwhile, not only avoided a booking but didn’t have a single foul awarded against him throughout his entire 81 minutes on the pitch. The result felt like a mugging in an almost literal sense.
The cynicism of this win is enhanced by the fact that it came within a run during which Chelsea were playing badly, having just lost to Crystal Palace and Everton. A number of high profile players, including Costa, were widely believed to have downed tools in an effort to unseat their manager, José Mourinho. But it was as if when Arsenal came to Stamford Bridge, with their purist manager and their young, delicate, technical players, skittering about like newborn deer, the Chelsea players gritted their teeth and did what they had to do. So they went out and did Arsenal in the most cynical, Mourinho’s-Chelsea-doing-Wenger’s-Arsenal way imaginable before returning to their internecine strife, losing their next home game 3-1 to Southampton.
All-in-all this made Costa easy to dislike, an obvious moustache twirling villain. But when his goalscoring form became so impressive that I added him to my Fantasy Football team, I inevitably began to pay more close attention and my opinion of him changed.
The thing that really struck me was the range of ways in which he contributed to the team. Physically strong and technically gifted, when he wasn’t holding up the ball and linking play he was making driving runs into the opposition defence or pressing defenders in possession. His tenacity made him a constant threat with and without the ball. As a result, even when, as in the middle of the 2016/17 season, he went through a goalscoring drought, his contribution was often decisive.
A great example of Costa’s all-round game came in Chelsea’s match against West Brom at Stamford Bridge last season. Chelsea were labouring against a packed and committed Baggies defence, exactly the sort of occasion where a title winning team needs to be able to grind out a win. In the 76th minute, Costa not only found a way to score the winning goal but did it showing many of his best qualities: harrying Gareth McCauley as he tried to control a loose pass from Fabregas, levering him off the ball before and charging into the penalty area before lashing a shot past Ben Foster into the far corner from a tight angle.
What was less obvious, but no less important in this performance, was Costa’s mental strength. Having picked up four bookings in the first six games of the season, Costa then avoided a fifth – and a one match suspension – for 10 games, including this one. Although Costa didn’t quite make it to the end of year amnesty before being booked again, the fact that he was able to go so long shows that he is more able to control himself than some would have you believe. The aggression in his game is, to some extent at least, controlled, and not the mere result of nasty impulses.
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At any level of football concentration is key, whether you are in the Champions League or Powerleague, the worst thing a teammate can do is switch off. When the ball goes out of play or is gathered by the goalkeeper, most strikers will take the chance to get a breather and trundle back to the centre circle – not Costa. His attention immediately switches from the ball to the opposition, or the ref, and he’s off and talking again It’s fascinating to watch him constantly jabbering at the centre-back – saying his first touch is off today, telling him his new haircut is stupid, asking if he’s sure he switched the gas off before he left the house this morning, anything he can do to distract or sow a bit of doubt.
All the while he’s slowing things down, preventing the release of the ball, letting his teammates get into position. In other cases, such as against Arsenal, his verbal barbs could be even more effective. When he is on your side you can be sure that Costa is pulling out all of the stops to win in a way that few players do. The most obvious example of a player in this mould is Luis Suárez, also late of this parish who generated similar love/hate responses from fans.
Of course, Costa doesn’t play the way he does in the name of self-sacrifice and esprit de corps, he does it because he likes winning almost as much as he likes aggro, but it is hard not to admire the sheer intensity of his will to win. When a player is not only so effective but so clearly committed, it’s easy to see why his teammates will leap to his defence or tolerate the juvenile antics that followed Chelsea’s league triumph last season.
Shithousery of the sort Costa practices is easy to dislike, but to be effective, it must be deployed with almost surgical precision. In the Premier League, exponents at Costa’s level are in short supply but videos from recent Clásicos show that the psychological warfare between Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué was every bit as engrossing as the rest of the match.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that for all his effectiveness on the pitch, Costa can be difficult to manage, even for the very best coaches. On the face of it, his intensity and cynicism should have made him an easy fit with both Mourinho and Antonio Conte, but it says something about the extent to which he pushes the boundaries that even they have baulked at the challenge.
Conte, in particular, speaks about Costa like a golem, an unstoppable force that he wants to harness but knows he can’t completely control. Ahead of a typically rambunctious performance against Swansea last season, he said: “Diego is a passionate man. For this reason he sometimes risks a yellow card, he must transfer his emotions on to the pitch in the right way. I want him to play with the right passion and the right aggression.”
And so it looks increasingly certain that Costa will depart the Premier League for good, probably to return to Atlético Madrid or head to China. If he does, I for one will miss every aspect of his game and you may be surprised to discover that you do too