How to solve Chelsea's £32 million problem?

Wherever José Mourinho decided to watch his team’s loss against Stoke City from, (hotel, pub, laundry basket), he could not have been reassured by the performance of his struggling centre forward, Diego Costa. Saturday night at the Britannia was yet another night where frustration overtook Costa, frustration not only at yet another game without a goal, but frustration seemingly with the world at large. Noel Gallagher once said of his brother Liam that he was like “a man with a fork in a world of soup” and there is perhaps no more apt a description of Costa himself. In recent weeks Costa seems a man aggrieved by the very nature of existence, persecuted by all, perpetually hard done by.

However this in itself is not the problem, Diego Costa has always been a striker who plays ‘off the shoulder’ of accepted football morality. One could even say that Costa is the archetypical Mourinho player, his embodiment on the pitch, operating wherever there is legal grey area to be found. The difference is, where once this style of play seemed to enhance his goalscoring powers, this season it only seems to hinder them. It’s telling that Costa’s recently released biography is entitled “The Art of War“; one of the stories relayed in the book encompasses the battling spirit that so quickly endeared Costa to his new fans at Stamford Bridge, telling captain John Terry on his first day training with Chelsea “I go to war. You come with me”.

This year, Costa could perhaps do with a read of his books namesake. In the original The Art of War Sun Tzu tells us that “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight”, and it is Costa’s inability to make such a distinction that is ultimately to his detriment this season. At the peak of his form, Costa seemed to have almost an seismographic ability to measure just how far he could go in order to wind up the opposition. Whereas in the past, Costa was able to stop just short of crossing that line, this season it seems he’s forgot what that line looks like. Costa has missed three games already this season through suspension, all from retrospective punishment, increasingly resembling a man arriving for a fight to find a football kicked at his feet.

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Which brings us to the fact that when he is actually able to appear on the pitch, he just has not been good enough. Costa has only scored two goals in his first ten Premier League appearances this season, last year he managed 9 in the same period. Goals aside, Costa has not nearly been the same handful as he was in his debut season. His hold up play has been almost non-existant, instead of acting as a reference point and linking up play with his back to goal, Costa increasingly takes it upon himself to drift to the left wing. Not only does this leave Chelsea without a finisher in the middle of the pitch but Costa’s attempts to dribble through entire defences seldom works, with every touch looking like Costa has as little an idea about what he is about to do as the defender does and only finding success in 15 of his 41 attempted take ons this season.

Again, as confidence shrinks, Costa’s reliance on the dark arts grows. Numerous times this season, it appears Costa’s objective is to find the right moment to go down, rather than the right moment to shoot at goal. While it is true that Costa’s reputation means his genuine shouts for a penalty are overlooked, it is he who created the reputation. Loathe as football fans would be to call it a skill, Costa was the master of leaving a leg out (as seen in Spain’s opening goal in the 2014 World Cup) but only when the timing was right. This season however it seems Costa would rather go down at any opportunity, rather than have to take the responsibility of shooting. This season Costa’s shot accuracy is only 50% and so it is easy to see why he has lost faith in his own goalscoring abilities. Much easier to blame a referee for failing to award you a penalty than to take the blame for missing an easy chance.

And this is the factor that is at the root of Diego Costa’s struggles this season, as it is with so many Chelsea players, confidence. If Costa has been well off the boil, then he is not alone. Pinpointing any Chelsea player who has played well this season has become a more difficult task than identifying those who have not. Willian beside, the players so important to Chelsea’s success last season, Branislav Ivanovic, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard et al have been shadows of their 2014 selves. Add to this a recurring hamstring problem, as well as a still ongoing attempt to feel at home in his adopted nation’s international squad and it’s easy to see why Costa is struggling to reconcile his place in football. The challenge for him is to channel this struggle in a positive direction.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Ben Sutherland.

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