Wednesday 24 May 2017

Richard Sadlier: Diego Costa’s lack of goals will worry his manager more than last week’s antics

Chelsea's Diego Costa
Chelsea's Diego Costa
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

As a kid, I was encouraged to foul the opposing goalkeeper as early in the game as I could. I was told that referees rarely give bookings in the opening few minutes, particularly when it’s your first challenge.

It was pretty much a free hit. If he comes to catch a cross, clatter him. If he comes out to dive at your feet, leave a boot in. It might knock him off his game enough to gain an advantage later on, but at worst it’s a free-kick the other way.

You might object to the idea of young children being taught in this way, but I was better prepared for the professional game as a result. And that’s precisely what coaches of aspiring young footballers should do.

Diego Costa’s antics last weekend riled a lot of people. Obviously Arsenal fans weren’t impressed, but neither were those who wish the game to be played in a certain spirit. Costa’s behaviour was analysed by commentators, columnists, fans and former footballers all week. At the highest level of the game, is it really necessary to resort to such primitive tactics?

Whether you consider it streetwise or dishonest, being cute or being a cheat, intimidating an opponent is a pretty basic way to seek an advantage. You do what you can to throw their concentration. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t win you praise. It’s anything from illegal to immoral, depending on who’s talking, but as Gabriel showed, not everyone knows how to handle it. While the condemnation of Costa came from a range of sources, it’s a little harder to tell right and wrong when you’re inside the dressing room.

Costa’s combative style isn’t his biggest issue, though. At this point last year, he had scored seven goals. He has one so far this season. While you could argue that he made the telling contribution last weekend by getting Arsenal down to 10 men, virtually ensuring a win in a game they couldn’t afford to lose, his form so far has been poor. He has a persistent hamstring injury and his social life is believed to be a cause of concern for some at Chelsea. And given the furore of the past week, you wonder how defenders and match officials will respond to him when he returns from his ban.

Opponents will be ready for all the off-the-ball stuff. There’s no way anyone can be caught unawares by any of that now. They’ll expect him to do what he did to Gabriel last week and most will have the sense to leave him to it. Some will try to get him to react, as he did against Koscielny. After all, if the referee had seen what he did, Chelsea may well have gone on and lost the game. Either way, he’ll be a marked man when he returns. 

As much as it is right to say that there’s a lot to be gained from provoking opponents, it’s even more effective to return to scoring goals. He is strong enough to keep winning the physical battles. He’s big enough, and he’s usually disciplined enough, but Mourinho’s teams exist to challenge for trophies. They’ll find that hard if their leading striker is playing as Costa is now. He’ll be sacrificed eventually if there isn’t an upturn in his performances. For all the talk of his style, he’ll be judged on how often he scores.

There are many different ways to get ahead in a game of football, but sticking blindly to the rules isn’t always the best approach. There are those who will wonder whether the three-game ban for violent conduct will make Costa reconsider his overly-aggressive style, but maybe all he’s learned from this is how effective this tactic can be. He set a trap and Gabriel walked right into it. Arsenal were down to 10 men and Chelsea went on to win. Enough is asked of players as it is. We shouldn’t expect them to abandon a strategy that works well.

And what’s more, nobody spent any time discussing Jose Mourinho’s future at Chelsea last week. It wasn’t a topic of conversation because of the win. His methods were discussed, as always, and many of his quotes were picked apart, but whether he’s about to be sacked wasn’t considered. Outsiders may have been outraged by Costa’s antics, but I’m sure his team-mates appreciated Arsenal going a man down. Nothing matters to Mourinho more than winning in football. Defending the behaviour of his players as they achieve it won’t trouble him at all.

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