“I prefer he scored [earlier than at] the end of the game,” laughedConte in his post-match press conference. “[Costa’s] working very hard, like the other players. I think he can improve a lot with the work [we’re doing]. He’s an important player for us, and it’s important to stay always concentrated on the game and don’t think about the other situation.”
That other situation is the controversy that Costa courts. The fallout from Monday hasn’t been about his return to form and being the difference-maker at Chelsea; we’ve been listening to the analysis and reruns of his tackle on Hammers goalkeeper Adrian, instead.
Should Costa have even been on the pitch to score the winner after that tackle? Can anyone keep Costa under control? Is he right for the English game? Should Chelsea be offloading him? Should he be getting a retrospective suspension?
With a few clashes against Watford, similar questions will continue to rear their head. Conte was quizzed about Costa ahead of this game, and the focus will not go away throughout the season on this evidence.
For all his faults in challenging the perceived treatment of his players, Jose Mourinho had identified the problem well regarding Costa during his time as Chelsea manager. Labelling his misdemeanours as “Costa Crimes” after an unfortunate Sky Sports headline, the manager’s message was forgotten among the hyperbole he created. The sentiment was that there is an unhealthy fascination with Costa’s behaviour.
The focus on Costa is unparalleled in the Premier League. Since the departure of Luis Suarez, English football has been gifted the ideal outlaw in his absence, and the focus has become unrelenting. For every blade of grass Costa touches, the slow-motion replays aren’t too far behind.
Forget this caricature that’s been created; why aren’t we celebrating Costa the footballer? It’s about time we changed the focus, especially in the moments when Costa is doing what he’s supposed to by winning Chelsea matches and points.
Take the Spanish international striker out of Conte’s side, and we would be looking at Chelsea being not much better off than Arsenal and Leicester City right now. Two wins would have been draws; only because of Costa, Chelsea are five points to the good on two of the sides we are expecting to challenge them for a top-four spot this season. That’s a significant early-season gain.
Costa hasn’t won these first games of the season single-handed. He’s been part of a squad that is beginning to rediscover its unity under new boss Conte. There is a different look about Chelsea now after a disastrous season last term—one that petered out into a sorry anti-climax.
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The harmony seems to have been restored, and Chelsea as a club are looking far healthier. The league position—regardless of the fact it’s just two games in—is helping that. And just as the rediscovered midfield power is a signal of what Conte is instilling at Stamford Bridge, so too is Costa’s goalscoring form.
Strikers are the match-winners in any team. Well, that’s the expectation we have of them at least. It’s why clubs are spending close to the hundreds of millions for them. Chelsea’s best striker is doing exactly what he should for Conte’s team: He’s proving the difference, but we’re not talking enough about it. Instead, it’s the other side of his game that dominates the agenda.
Indeed, it’s ironic that we criticise Costa for not focusing enough on what he’s good at, and here we are, focusing too much on what he’s not good at. When Costa’s getting it right, we’re getting it wrong.
“If I do anything, it’s different to what any other footballer does,” Chelsea’s front man told ESPN Brazil (h/t ESPN FC’s LiamTwomey) this week after his match-winner against West Ham. “We need to see this because people marked me, and I have to deal with it and ask God that these things don’t mess me up or take away opportunities of the game that happens with suspension.”
Costa’s main issue was with the perception that referees treat him differently, but he has made no secret of his overall treatment in England in the past.
It has to stop otherwise we run the risk of forcing another of the world’s best talents out of the Premier League. That doesn’t mean we avoid holding Costa to account when he has to be; it means finding the right balance and not overreacting.
When Barcelona came calling for Suarez in 2014, the truth was always that he would have been leaving Liverpool regardless of his reputation in English football. How do you not answer the call from one of the best sides in the world when you’re in a struggling team at Anfield? That his departure was laced with an undercurrent of mutual spite made his departure all the more regrettable, though.
A more apt comparison for Costa from a Chelsea perspective has always been with Didier Drogba. The Ivorian suffered from the same sort of scrutiny as Costa does now. It was often focused on his gamesmanship and desire to fool referees into decisions than what Costa faces.
That blurred the lines for Drogba, and there was a moment when it seemed inevitable he would soon depart back to Marseille, where Chelsea had signed him from. He didn’t, and the rest is history; he transformed his undoubted talent into something positive that has shaped Chelsea’s history beyond all belief.
If we’re going to see something similar from Costa, he will need to play just as much a part in it all, like Drogba did. As well as English football toning down the level of scrutiny, Costa needs to show a willingness to change perceptions and be a more positive figure. That comes with him performing on the pitch.
The thing is, his form this season is hinting at Costa doing just that. It’s time we joined in.
Sources: Bleacher Report’s