Sunday 30 April 2017

Brian Kerr: A modern solution to a modern problem

Conte giving managerial masterclass by getting best out of wantaway Costa ahead of likely lucrative summer sale

Antonio Conte congratulates Diego Costa after Chelsea’s victory
against Stoke. Photo: Craig Mercer/Getty Images
Antonio Conte congratulates Diego Costa after Chelsea’s victory against Stoke. Photo: Craig Mercer/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

Diego Costa and Chelsea FC had a sweet and sour relationship long before a Chinese takeaway, in the shape of a £100m offer for the Spanish international from a team called Tianjin Quanjian, was mooted.

Prolific in his first season at the club, when he scored 21 goals in 39 games, Costa followed up that title-winning effort by resting on his laurels along with several others in his second campaign, undermining the status of manager Jose Mourinho in the process, while running the risk of alienating himself permanently from the supporters.

Yet when you are a regular scorer of goals, the capacity of football fans to forgive is almost saint-like. Fifteen strikes from 21 league appearances this term have restored his standing among the patrons at Stamford Bridge, who were even able to overlook his most recent sulk.

And they weren't the only ones prepared to absolve him of any perceived sins.

Note how the Chelsea players responded to Costa scoring the opening goal in his comeback game - after a two-week absence - against Hull. And look, too, at the way they brought him into the mix when celebrating David Luiz's vital opener against Liverpool on Tuesday.

Whereas Dimitri Payet managed to ostracise himself from the squad at West Ham, Costa has somehow maintained a healthy relationship with his team-mates. Even the way he interacts with manager Antonio Conte appears to be built on solid foundations.

Credit Conte for this. Used to dealing with the type of egos who populate the Italian league, Conte arrived in England fully aware of the striker's conflicting moods and knew he was getting the best and worst type of player.

On the one hand he has at his disposal a swashbuckling, aggressive centre-forward who torments defences and fits perfectly into the 3-4-3 formation that has served Chelsea so well since they made their tactical switch in the aftermath of a humiliating 3-0 defeat to Arsenal last September.

But on the other hand, Conte has to deal with a player whose inner demons often threaten to disrupt not just his own life but also the lives of those around him.

Because sandwiched between his prolonged huff (that suggested an imminent return to Atletico Madrid last season) and his briefer tantrum last month, there were incidents like the one at in October, when Costa reacted angrily to being substituted by Conte during the home win over Leicester.

Conte handled that issue well and coped even better with the mini-crisis which gripped the club last month when Costa's head was seemingly turned by the €35m annual salary offer from Tianjin Quanjian.

Threatened with the possibility of losing his top striker, there is little doubt in my mind that Conte engaged Roman Abramovich in solving this problem from the get-go, knowing that an invitation to the owner to get involved would have a dual effect.

Firstly, by sharing the difficulty, Conte was diluting the responsibility resting on his shoulders.

And secondly, the Italian would have been fully aware that Costa's considerable ego would have been massaged by the fact that the man bankrolling the club was needed to take care of his personal business.

Quickly they sorted things. Just two matches - one in the FA Cup, the second at Leicester - were missed.

Problems

"I've always believed in solving my problems in the dressing-room not out here (in press conferences)," Conte said, before delivering a more interesting quote. "I think now it's better to be focused and concentrate on the present, not the future.

"Now it's important he uses these four months (until the end of the season) in a very strong way, and then we'll see."

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that there is a strong possibility that Costa will be sold come the summer, simply because the money on offer is so plentiful (€100m for a 28-year-old) but also because there comes a time when you balance up everything that Costa gives you.

While the provision of goals is one thing, the threat of instant disharmony to your squad is another - and that is why you can easily come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is take the money and run.

Quite why Costa wants to run to China is another day's work, though. Irrespective of the astronomical wages on offer, the Brazil-born forward is hardly on the breadline, earning a reported £185,000 a week in the Premier League, with the prospect of a pay increase not far away.

All Chinese football can offer him is more money. They can't pretend they have a credible league, and most probably they never will have one, particularly in the aftermath of the Chinese FA's introduction of a set of rules that has reduced the number of foreign players permitted in match-day squads from five to three.

This, though, threatens to be Costa's problem rather than Chelsea's. If they let him go for substantial money, as they did with Oscar and Branislav Ivanovic, then space will open up in their squad for fresh Conte-picked signings as well as for young players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah to get some game-time.

Fully aware of how years of heavy investment in underage players and the academy has failed to produce even one regular first-teamer, Abramovich and Conte may steer Chelsea down a different course.

With Costa, though, they appear to have found the right course, using a modern-day solution to solve a modern-day problem.

Years ago - even as recently as 2011 - you just couldn't have imagined a team heading for the league losing their star striker half-way through the campaign because a club from a vastly inferior league were prepared to throw more money at him.

Yet this is way things are now. Players these days have egos as large as their salaries and also have agents who benefit if their clients move.

It is fascinating to watch the way Conte deals with these matters. He shares similar character traits with Diego Simeone, the man who got the best out of Costa at Atletico - until Simeone got a hold of him, Costa had drifted around to five different clubs, scoring 33 goals in 124 games.

Given the player he has since become, there is no doubt in my mind that both Simeone and Conte handed Costa responsibility on the park in the way Alex Ferguson did with Roy Keane at Manchester United.

Roy's aggressive nature on pitch and constant demands on players was facilitated because Ferguson knew it was in the interest of the team for him to have that authority on the pitch. He'd set the tone, harass referees and achieve results.

Costa, similarly, has been told to lead the line, direct traffic from the front and be the talisman.

And yet even though the team's talisman quickly became its rebel, look what happened in Costa's first game back. He broke the deadlock, the crowd sang his name, his team-mates rushed to celebrate with him, and Conte gave him a big hug - clear signs of Conte's considerable man-management skills.

It is almost as if he has said to him: "You break your arse for us between now and May, cause trouble to opposing defences, score goals and then in the summer if you want to make a fortune, we will get a deal done."

Even if he had have left in January, though, I still think Chelsea could have won the league. I'm almost of the opinion that the league will be as good as over anyway, unless they lose this afternoon to a team who have won only one of their last seven games at Stamford Bridge.

Averaging 2.43 points per game this season, Chelsea are on course to break the 90-point mark, something that has not been done in the Premier League in five years.

So far this season, they have failed to win just five of their 23 league games - twice against Liverpool, once against Arsenal, once against Spurs and once against Swansea.

Otherwise there have been 18 wins - three against fellow members of the top six (a 3-1 victory at Manchester City, a 4-0 win at home to United and a 2-1 win at home to Spurs) and 15 against those outside the top six.

After today's game against Arsenal, they have just two other dates with rival top six sides: at home to City on April 5 and away to United on April 15.

The significance of this is obvious. In 16 league matches this term against the makeweights in the division, Chelsea's results read as follows: played 16, won 15, drawn one.

You don't need to be Einstein to figure out where I'm going with my maths from here on in.

Catching

Nine points clear of Spurs and Arsenal, their nearest challengers, they are also 10 ahead of Liverpool and City. United, in sixth, are out of it.

And unless Arsenal win today, then catching Chelsea will be beyond everyone.

In yesterday's press conference it was obvious that the earlier defeat to Arsenal still rankles with Conte, and he felt almost insulted by the devastation of his defence in the first half of that game.

Having impressively sorted things out subsequently, by bringing in the wing-back formation, which resulted in Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso being promoted at the expense of Ivanovic and Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea have thrived, profiting too from the evident hours Conte has spent on the training ground.

Arsene Wenger, who is missing four midfielders today - Santi Carzola, Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elmeny - will be aware that his side are vulnerable on the counter-attack.

One thing in their favour, though, is that when they defeated Chelsea in September, the damage was caused by the speed and movement of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott. For that reason alone, Wenger should revert to the tactics which worked so effectively for him at the Emirates.

And yet, having said all that, there is still an overriding feeling that this game could be defined by Costa, whose mixture of physicality, wiliness, technical excellence, speed, guile and eye for a goal make him almost impossible to stop.

"We were not mentally prepared for Watford," said Wenger after Tuesday's defeat. They'd better sort out those psychological issues today. Any doubts will be cruelly punished - particularly by Costa.

  • Chelsea v Arsenal, live, Sky Sports 1, 12.30

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