Diego Costa, in the most positive way imaginable, is a bastard. For the duration of every game, he is more than willing to play the role of villain. There is almost no action that he will not take to give his side an advantage. Kicking, nipping, scratching, diving and rutting are all part of his nefarious repertoire. He is so masterful of these so-called “dark arts” that it is a surprise he plays football for Chelsea and not Quidditch for Slytherin.
Last season’s home victory against Arsenal was most notable (aside from being a welcome break in the disastrous final campaign for Jose Mourinho) for providing the ideal look into Costa’s antics – the naturalised Spaniard cunningly managed to get his marker, Gabriel, sent off. The modus operandi Costa carried from Atletico Madrid is the near unique skill of being able to harass, bully, goad and antagonise with a mask of impassable viciousness, all the while keeping a semblance of an emotional equilibrium.
Of course, to the purists out there his performance was unpalatable but in my opinion, the player who really let himself down was Arsenal’s Gabriel. Just like the Romans at the battle of Cannae, Gabriel knew he was walking into a trap, yet still, he marched deeper and deeper into the murky abyss Costa created until his destruction was inevitable. The biggest disappointment is that Costa’s routine was hardly new to the Brazilian; he faced similar treatment in La Liga, whilst at Villarreal. Costa, however, like all great magicians left everyone a gasp, despite the crowd knowing what he was going to do. There was an almost Machiavellian artistry to Costa’s performance, spending the entire game acting more like a heel in the WWE than an international footballer. He didn’t register a single foul. Not one.
The Chelsea striker’s performance reminded me of a villain in Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight Rises (2012). Not Tom Hardy’s Bane, despite a similar hulking physique, but Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman. In one memorable scene Kyle, easily and violently dispatches a number of goons, then as police entered, the room, she collapses to the floor sobbing and gesticulating, pleading her innocence. After all, she’s not capable of sudden violence, right? She then leaves the room whistling with joy. The Arsenal victory painted a similar picture. You can imagine Costa sat back, reclined in the changing rooms, delighted with his devious performance, a smile plastered across his face.
Last season denigrated into a meandering sea of mediocrity both for Costa and Chelsea. He laboured his way to a modest 11 Premier League goals, guiding his club to a tenth-place finish. Many onlookers were left feeling that perhaps Costa’s time at the table of the game’s finest attackers had passed, that with another candle added to his birthday cake, he was no longer suited to the rough and tumble of the English game. If this season has proved anything it is that, that theory is a fallacy. Time and time again Costa has led the line with a remarkable gusto, smoothing over his rougher edges to ensure he remains on the pitch, yet remaining sharp enough to ensure he penetrates the opposition. It is unclear whether or not this tempering of his character is down to a more hands-on approach from new gaffer Antonio Conte, or if it is simply down to his own maturation. What is clear, however, is that it has been an undeniable success.
Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 has been built largely around the need to solidify a defence that was bewilderingly porous. While that was certainly necessary its success would only be viable if a steady supply of goals could be unearthed. Aided by the similarly rejuvenate pair of Eden Hazard and Pedro, Costa has plundered a league-high 12 goals – with an added 5 assists a delightful bonus. With the reborn Costa operating as the sides catalyst, Chelsea have surged on an unstoppable 13 game winning streak that has seen the Blues sit atop of the table with a healthy 5-point gap separating them from the chasing pack. The tremendous swing in fortunes between this campaign and last, cannot be attributed entirely to the form of Costa, yet it would be churlish to deny him the lion’s share of the praise.
While he has seemingly made a concerted effort to use his aggression in a more impactful manner, it is important to remember that his explosive rage constantly simmers under the surface, like a dormant volcano. Audiences were positive that, like a snake shedding its skin, the old Costa was about to emerge from this season’s incarnation during the recent 3-1 victory over Manchester City. While Fabregas was allowed to take up the pantomime villain mantle, after Sergio Aguero’s lunatic lunge on David Luiz, we saw an already substituted Costa charge down the sidelines with the steely determination of a T-1000, to join in the expanding fracas. Much to everyone’s surprise, Costa was actually a calming influence. This perfectly encapsulates the change in Costa’s mindset. There are bigger fish to fry, bigger scores to settle. Costa has neither the time nor the energy, not when the need to once again land a title is on the line. Yet what makes this apparently rehabilitated bastard so dangerous is the effect he has on defenders, they must know, even if it is solely on a subconscious level, that he may lose his temper in a violent manner. The concentration required to contain one of the game’s best, with the nagging voice of fear whispering in the back of your mind, must be exhausting.
I don’t have a massive problem with Costa’s previous methods, they were for his opposition to anticipate. The reason, I believe, that he was so roundly vilified, to an extreme degree, was because his actions weren’t “manly”. To an older generation (of which the mainstream tabloid press is nearly entirely comprised) his actions were audacious, petulant, and perhaps worst of all cowardly. These same journalists would have been those laughing and joking every time Paul Scholes made a dangerous tackle, a misdemeanour far more serious as countless players have found to their detriment.
Football is becoming less and less like the sport of decades gone and more like a Hollywood movie or TV series. Games regularly marketed like episodes and seasons like series’. Sky Sports have produced trailers advertising games longer than any Christopher Nolan movie. It is, therefore, a positive that the characters on screen aren’t all bland replicates, devoid of purpose or emotion, meekly making their way through their careers like a Darren Fletcher or a James Milner. Besides every good film needs a bad guy, a real menacing bastard to stir the onlooking masses and in this upgraded Diego Costa 2.0 the Barclays Premier League has perhaps the most insidious of the lot.