Last week, two of the most surprising stories of the transfer window thus far created a prevailing trend of discussion in the Premier League: the continued expanse of player power. On the east side of London, Dimitri Payet effectively downed tools in hope of manufacturing a return to Marseille; on the other, Diego Costa and Antonio Conte fell out on the training pitch amid rumours of a stunning £80million move to the Chinese Super League.
Both managers and teams responded in identical fashion. Slaven Bilic exiled his talismanic creator from training and West Ham demolished Crystal Palace 3-0 at the London Stadium. Conte, meanwhile, left the Premier League’s joint-top scorer out of the squad that travelled to the east Midlands and maintained Chelsea’s place at the Premier League’s summit with a convincing 3-0 win over the reigning champions, Leicester City.
Although both intriguing in their encapsulation of the mindset of the modern footballer, Costa’s tale of a lucrative pay-out in the Far East is undoubtedly the more significant in terms of how the rest of the season could pan out in the Premier League. Whilst West Ham weren’t much good with Payet in the starting XI anyway, nervously peering over their shoulders at the relegation zone, Costa has played a pivotal role in Chelsea’s march to the top of the table, racking up a division-best 14 goals and forging a formidable front three with Eden Hazard and Pedro.
So, would Costa jetting off to China before the end of the month effectively end Chelsea’s title hopes in the way many currently assume? Well, amid a campaign in which goalscoring centre-forwards appear to be more expendable than ever before, the stats suggest the Blues could have just enough to limp over the finishing line without him.
Of course, Chelsea fans will be well aware that Saturday’s victory wasn’t the club’s only taste of success without Costa this season. On Boxing Day, amid the Spaniard’s absence through suspension, they recorded a resounding 3-0 win over Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge, employing a front three of Hazard, Pedro and Willian that wreaked havoc against a talented Cherries side.
That’s not left us with the most convincing of sample sizes, especially considering Chelsea will face much tougher opposition than Bournemouth at home and Leicester away before the end of the season. Yet it is, nonetheless, one that allows us to draw some interesting comparisons.
The Blues have paradoxically scored more goals per match without their top-scoring centre-forward this season. They have also kept more possession (both 65% against Leicester and 55% against Bournemouth were above their season average of 54.3%) conceded fewer goals and picked up fewer yellow cards – Costa can’t be blamed for the 1.8 difference in this regard single-handedly, but he is the joint-most-booked player in Chelsea’s Premier League squad.
Few would dispute that in pure footballing terms, Chelsea are much better off with Costa than without him, even if he’s featuring from the bench. But there are alternative perspectives to consider here; namely that the Blues are being offered £80million for a 28-year-old striker, with well-known hamstring problems, who has always been a complete loose cannon.
As a consequence, no Chelsea manager has truly been able to keep control of Costa and maintain his form in front of goal for more than half a season at a time.
Indeed, the Spain international managed just seven – compared to the 14 prior – from January 2015 until the summer as Mourinho claimed his third Premier League title, whilst the Portuguese simply couldn’t get a tune out of him during their second campaign together, leaving Guus Hiddink to reap the post-New Year’s benefits of ten goals in 19 games.
Likewise, whilst Conte appeared to have completely quelled the striker’s hot-headedness a matter of months ago, bringing a new level of clinical calmness to his game, he’s now suddenly facing a fight to keep Costa at the club despite Chelsea being well on course to lift another Premier League title. Although Costa’s brilliant at his best, he’s also near-unbearable at his worst.
The aforementioned statistics make the case to part with Costa all the more stronger, although in real terms, Chelsea’s front three has been less effective without the former Atletico man since the campaign-defining switch to a 3-4-3 formation, as shown below.
But what’s most interesting is how marginal the differences truly are, despite the absence of an out-and-out finisher during the two instances Conte has turned to the Pedro-Hazard-Willian attacking triplet this season. Indeed, on none of the fronts measured above have Chelsea been more than 0.9 worse off without Costa heading the attack.
And looking around the Premier League, that perhaps shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The old-school poachers of yesteryear are becoming increasingly uncommon, to the extent that even Sergio Aguero (arguably the best finisher in world football) and Daniel Sturridge (the most natural striking talent at Liverpool) are having to settle for contributions from the bench these days, whilst guaranteed goalscorers like Jermain Defoe can only find employment in the bottom half.
It seems that fluidity, movement and the ability to press is steadily becoming more important to managers at the top end of the Premier League and while Costa’s certainly no slouch, Pedro, Hazard and Willian are more naturally suited to the criteria as nimble and tactically flexible attacking players.
In fact, there’s a curious similarity between Hazard, Pedro and Willian and Liverpool’s front three of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane; the playmaker cutting onto his right from the left, a versatile central forward who can move wide or drop in behind, and a lightening quick, dynamic winger who stretches play on the right.
Chelsea fans might not be so convinced, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with a forward line mimicking one that has made Liverpool the most potent side in the division this term with 49 goals from 21 games.
Once again, having a striker of Costa’s natural pedigree is certainly better than going without, whether he’s in the starting XI or coming on to affect games in the dying stages. But the changing dynamics of the Premier League this season, coupled with impressive performances from Chelsea’s forward cast in his absence, suggest Conte’s side can still lift the title without him, lead by an unconventional front three.
Whether Conte is ready to take that gamble mid-season, however, remains to be seen.