Striker Diego Costa was Chelsea’s top scorer last season and in the eyes of many, the driving force behind their successful Premier League title bid; the intrinsic difference in their fortunes compared to the 3rd-place campaign prior, bettering the scoring efforts of Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres singlehandedly.
The Spain international has struggled to produce the same level of firepower this term, managing just one goal in his first six appearances, yet many would argue he’s still vital to the Chelsea cause. The Daily Mail’s Oliver Holt, for example, recently described him as Jose Mourinho’s ‘reflection on the pitch‘, following a display of what can only be described as quasi-violent gamesmanship against Arsenal last weekend.
So with the beastly centre-forward, ever-protruding the aggression and war-torn face of a soldier just returning from the Syrian front, retrospectively banned for the next two matches by the FA for his swipes at Laurent Koscielny, including the Blues’ trip to Newcastle United on Saturday evening, the Special One has expressed his fears over how the Premier League champions will cope without the resident spearhead of their attack.
“Every time you lose a player it’s not good for the team and easier to accept an injury. An injury is part of the game and we have to be mentally ready. But this kind of situation goes much, much, much, much more deeply and the team is hurting, obviously. I don’t know if the squad can cope. The team has lost an important player for three matches,” complained Mourinho, after Costa served the first match of his suspension in midweek – a 4-1 Capital One Cup win over Walsall.
But statistics are becoming more important and popular than ever in modern football, evident enough through Sky Sports and BBC Sport using data from Sports Interactive’s hugely successful Football Manager series over the summer when analysing potential Premier League transfer targets. Indeed, there’s something reassuringly clinical about expressing the beautiful game in quantitative terms, without the ambiguity or subjectivity of some workaday pundit giving what could well be an incredibly misguided, uninformed opinion.
And the numbers suggest that actually, Chelsea tend to fare better without Costa raging rampantly around the final third. Since signing him from Atletico Madrid for £32million last summer, Chelsea’s win-rate with the 26 year-old in the side is 67%; without him it’s just 59%. Their defeat rate is also marginally better – 14% compared to 11% – and perhaps most numerically damning of all, the Blues haven’t lost any of their last twelve games in Costa’s absence, winning eight.
Of course, statistics can be misleading. During the 2013/14 campaign, Mike Williamson won more headers, made more clearances and committed less defensive errors than Vincent Kompany. But one is a Premier League winning captain for Manchester City and the other is a Championship-standard defender robbing Newcastle United for a living.
The assumption in Costa’s case is that key players of the Spaniard’s variety, especially when often struggling with injury problems, are rested against poor quality opposition, when Mourinho feels the second string are capable of easily securing a result.
Likewise, even when suffering unbearable pains in his hamstring, Costa always seems fit enough to make it onto the pitch for the important games, which his side are more likely to lose; his insistence in being fielded in Atletico’s 2014 Champions League final, only to be hauled off eight minutes later through injury, providing the perfect example.
Yet of his 21 league goals for Chelsea, eleven came in Costa’s first ten appearances. The remaining return of ten in 22 is certainly decent, but by no means spectacular for a club of Chelsea’s stature. In fact, the one-goal-per-2.2-appearances-strike-rate is about on par with Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud, a forward most Blues fans would view as probably just below the level of quality they should be looking to sign.
Likewise, Costa’s first Champions League goal for Chelsea came this season in a four-goal thumping of Israeli minnows Maccabi Tel Aviv, despite making seven appearances in Europe last term; so perhaps he’s not the clinical front-man many of us automatically assume.
Of course, Costa offers much more than simply goals. As alluded to earlier in this article, his aggression, physicality and gamesmanship is seen as the epitome of the Mourinho mantra; he’s a walking manifestation of the Chelsea gaffer’s win-at-all-costs mentality, which inspires a similar attitude in those around him.
But that ‘edge’ to the Spain international’s game, as it’s often described, can be as much a curse as a blessing. Whilst it sent Arsenal into meltdown last Saturday, it undoubtedly exacerbated Chelsea’s struggles during the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City in August. Rather than attempting to overturn the Citizens’ lead, Costa seemed more concerned with administering street justice on Fernandinho for a flailing elbow in the first half.
So could Chelsea actually fare better against Newcastle United and Southampton without their suspended centre-forward? Perhaps. Costa’s wild side doesn’t really fit the occasion of facing two teams in the Premier League’s bottom five. Likewise, although malnourished in terms of game time since joining the Stamford Bridge ranks, Loic Remy is a proven goalscorer; whilst Radamel Falcao’s pedigree, even if yet to become evident in the Premier League, remains indisputable.
With Costa yet to truly find form this season, at least in terms of when the ball’s at his feet (the thuggery and theatrics, on the other hand, have been world-class) his absence won’t be felt as gravely as Mourinho claims in the coming weeks. But over the course of the season, would Chelsea be better off without Costa? If they sold him in January, for example, to sign a similarly-valued replacement? Regardless of what the statistics say, not a chance.