As the 2013/14 season winds down, we're going to start to see more and more transfer stories making the rounds. One name that's likely to be heavily linked to Chelsea is Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa, who has been in sensational form this season, and was linked fairly heavily during the January window.
Costa has a reasonable buyout in his current contract, believed to be just £32 million. With Jose Mourinho being openly critical of his current striking options* and his continued insistence that the club will be looking for an upgrade this summer, the links to Costa should continue until the player signs a new deal with Atletico Madrid, or Chelsea find an upgrade somewhere else.
*Not that he meant for that criticism to be made public
One year ago, Costa was somewhat of an unknown commodity to most, though both Chelsea and Liverpool were tenuously linked to him during the summer transfer window. Those links seemed to disappear when he put pen to paper on a new deal though, which raised his release clause by some £10 million. He also had the Brazilian national team looking to get him more involved with their setup, though he's likely made very few friends back home with his decision to represent Spain as opposed to his country of birth.
Since signing that new deal, Costa has done nothing to dissuade clubs from meeting his improved release, scoring 31 goals (and counting) in all competitions this season. While it may seem to the casual observer that the player has come out of nowhere this season, the reality is that Costa had been putting up an excellent goal/minutes ratio for the past several seasons, a good portion of which was spent in more of a supporting role.
Watching the player in years past, you always got the feeling that there was a huge talent there that just lacked a lot of polish. That's understandable, especially when you consider that he didn't start playing club football until the age of 17, when he signed a deal with SC Braga in Portugal. It didn't take long for Atletico to take notice, and ten months later the Spanish side made a move to acquire him.
The Brazilian born player spent the next few seasons on loan, showing flashes of potential and a huge lack of polish. The Madrid side decided to allow Costa to transfer to Real Valladolid in 2009, but were sure to include a buyback in the deal that they'd activate 12 months later. After suffering a serious knee injury that caused him to miss the first half of the 2011/12 season, he joined Rayo Vallecano on loan, and really started to show signs of putting everything together on the pitch. He returned to Atletico for the start of the 2013/13 season, and was excellent in support of Radamel Falcao. While he may have flown under the radar a bit for that 18-month spell, there's been no hiding his performance this season, and he's now a household name.
So what is it about the player that makes him a guy Chelsea are interested in? Watching him play extensively, it's not very hard to be impressed with his play. The more I see of him, the more he reminds me of the last center forward Chelsea had that actually terrified opposing defenses. Like Didier Drogba, Diego is a big, imposing forward that plays an extremely physical game. He's got decent enough speed and explosiveness, and he's generally very direct with his movement.
That movement is one of the things that I truly love about Costa, as it looks nothing at all like what we generally see from Fernando Torres. One thing fans seem to love about our spanish number nine is how much hard running he's willing to do, even if most of that hard running makes little sense and does nothing to increase Chelsea's chances of scoring.
Diego is quite different, in that he rarely looks like he's running hard when Atleti don't have possession. That isn't to say that he's poor defensively, as he's actually quite useful without the ball. He'll tend to drift into areas where he's useful as opposed to sprinting to close down the ball, taking away easy passing lanes instead of forcing a quicker, but fairly easy pass.
While his defensive work is adequate enough, but frankly, that's not going to be a reason why anyone has interest in the player. His ability when his teammates have the ball is what's going to have top clubs lining up for him, and it's the biggest reason why the links to Chelsea will start picking up steam again soon.
Costa is an absolute menace for opposing defenders to deal with. His movement is surprisingly intelligent for a player that got started so late, and he tends to be very good at finding pockets of space inside of the 18-yard box. He doesn't shoot often from range, but it's pretty rare that he'll pass on a shot when he gets a look inside the penalty area. As he's converting his shots into goals at one of the highest rates in Europe, that probably won't get too many complaints from either his coaches or teammates.
In addition to his movement, Costa is very good with the ball at his feet, and his strength and streetballing background make him very hard to force off the ball. He's not going to wow you with his passing, usually opting for lower risk options which are very rarely given away as opposed to looking for that 'killer' pass that we often see Torres try.
At 25, he's among the best strikers on the planet already, and due to his late start with the game, he's probably going to keep improving for the next 4-5 years. His body type, playing style, and movement suggest a player that will peak later than most, and he's one of the few players that you could reasonably compare to Drogba in terms of a late development standpoint. He's not limited to the center of the attack either, as he has shown the ability to play either wing effectively, as well as looking comfortable slotting in behind a striker.
If only that were the whole story on Diego Costa.
Unfortunately, the Brazilian born Spaniard isn't simply an excellent footballer, he's also a magnet for trouble on the pitch. NFL fans out there are probably familiar with Richard Sherman, and comparing the Seahawks corner to Costa, is in many ways, very apt. From the moment the game kicks off Costa is going to physically and verbally abuse his opponents, and there doesn't appear to be a line he's unwilling to cross. He's thrown spit on an opponent, been sent off five times, and received an astonishing 65 yellow cards since the start of the 2008/09 season. While that temper has shown (some) signs of improvement this season, there's still just no way to describe him as anything other than a [fun]ing jerk.
Diego has also earned himself quite a reputation for diving, and frankly, he deserves that as well. While the aggressive, physical style that Costa employs sees him fouled at an astonishing rate, at some point the lack of polish in his game seems to have convinced him that going to ground at the slightest of touches was a viable strategy. Thankfully, he has cut back on the diving some this season as his finishing ability has improved, but old habits die hard.
All told, this is definitely one of the most polarizing players that we've been linked to in recent years. On playing ability alone, he's already among the elite players on the planet at the age of 25, and he's been showing signs of getting even better. Every time I see some ridiculous comment that he's "overrated", I want to throw the person making that statement off of a very large bridge. If you watch this guy play on a regular basis and come away thinking he's just not good enough, the only way you'll ever find employment analysing football is if there's an opening at Fox Sports.
The bad side of Costa is awful though, as he's one of the few players out there likely to make the media forget about Luis Suarez or Mario Balotelli. Sid Lowe summed him up fairly nicely in February, and I'll leave you with that:
Diego Costa says that he never takes his work home with him. Which is probably a good thing. If he did, the Atlético Madrid striker might walk through the door, goad the dog with a stick, surreptitiously elbow his wife out of the way on the stairs, shrug his shoulders innocently as she lay in a crumpled heap at the bottom and whisper insults to his children, look the other way and whistle when they burst into tears. He might stroll into the living room and dramatically collapse on the floor, roll around the rug holding his head and appeal for a penalty. He might even get it too.