When in top form, Diego Costa is unquestionably one of the best strikers in the world, capable of single-handedly ripping through defences like a tornado. He’s bullish, aggressive, direct, uniquely unorthodox and when the ball drops to him in the box, his low-back-lift finishing is often deadly. A nightmare for defenders and goalkeepers alike.
But there are chinks in Costa’s armour and amid a run of form that has seen him net just five times since the turn of the year, they leave Antonio Conte with a difficult question to answer ahead of the summer transfer window.
No club has successfully defended the English title for eight years and the last time Chelsea entered the summer as reigning champions, underwhelming recruitment saw them capitulate under Jose Mourinho like never before. If Conte wishes to maintain the impeccable standards Chelsea have shown this season, ruthless decisions must be made in the coming window – which could well include moving Costa on.
At this point, we’re all more than aware of Costa’s flaws. That battering-ram approach in the final third comes at a consequence of hot-headedness, which can often reduce the Spaniard to careering around the pitch searching for a confrontation rather than focusing on how to put the ball in the back of the net. During his final campaign under Mourinho, Costa’s behaviour verged upon petulant.
Admittedly, we’ve seen a much calmer Costa since Conte took over last summer but there have still been incidents, most notably the training-ground bust up in January that saw the striker excluded from the squad that travelled to face Leicester City. Interest from the Chinese Super League was reportedly a factor and having since admitted his desire to return to Atletico Madrid last summer, Costa’s commitment to the cause and loyalty to the club must inevitably questioned.
Perhaps that’s being hypercritical of a player who can never be accused of showing a lack of commitment on the pitch, even if its occasionally misguided. But Costa hasn’t quite been the same since that January fall-out and it’s not the first time we’ve seen a reduced version of the usually world-class centre-forward during the second half of the season throughout his Chelsea career. In fact, when coupled with his debut campaign, there’s an alarming trend.
Ironically, two second halves of the season in Spain have gone a long way in shaping Costa’s career. He wasn’t always such a formidable goalscorer, reaching double figures in just one of his first six campaigns at senior level despite partly plying his trade in the Portuguese and Spanish second tiers. But ten goals in six months on loan at Rayo Vallecano seemingly changed opinions of him at Atletico Madrid and he finished the next season in fine form for his parent club, leading to rumoured interest from Liverpool.
Fast forward a year later and Costa had earned a big-money move to Chelsea by firing the Mattress Makers to the La Liga title and a Champions League final. But since arriving in England, the situation has largely reversed, with just eleven of his 55 Chelsea goals coming in the latter halves of the 2014/15 season and the current campaign.
For whatever reason, the turn of the year seems to be a real turning point for him and at this point, it must be questioned whether Costa’s capable of keeping it up for a whole season – something that will be vital if Chelsea are to successfully defend the title next term.
Of course, there are some logical explanations, whilst the 2015/16 season was the polar opposite – Costa scoring just six times from August to December, before finishing the season with a run of twelve in 20. That can be explained away by Chelsea’s generally horrendous form, whilst injuries were undoubtedly taking their toll on the 28-year-old during his first season at Stamford Bridge.
He’d played through the pain and the season actually ended with Didier Drogba leading the line at the age of 37. Likewise, the conditions in the Premier League change dramatically between autumn and spring; it could well the case that Costa’s style of play suits the more attritional, wetter months rather than those of glorious sunshine, when games become more technical and less about bullying the opposition.
But for a striker of Costa’s obvious ability, it’s concerning that he’s never been able to keep it up for a full season in the Premier League. Inevitably, every striker undergoes dry spells, but a run of seven games without a goal in 2015 speaks for itself. For a club like Chelsea, the first-choice striker must deliver more frequently than that.
No doubt, Costa offers a lot more than simply goals; he bullies defences into submission and he’s one of the best in the Premier League at bringing others into the game – vitally important to Chelsea’s close-quarters front three – or protecting the ball long enough to win a corner or free kick. When in top form, it’s fantastic, old-fashioned centre-forward play. But as our infographic shows, it’s not just the goals that have dried up for Costa since January. His all-round contributions have severely reduced as well.
The ultimate question Conte faces is whether he feels he can rely upon Costa for another full season. Since arriving at Stamford Bridge, he’s always felt like a ticking time bomb who would eventually leave the club under a dark cloud. Conte and Mourinho have both accepted the trade-off but when Costa isn’t delivering, it becomes that much harder to overlook his flaws.
Chelsea have been linked with a number of alternatives ahead of the summer, such as Alvaro Morata, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, and if Conte’s able to bring one of them in, it might be time to move Costa on.
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