Whilst for sure nobody thought it would be easy for Spain to retain the World Cup this summer, with the country’s current most golden of generations having evidently been on a steep decline these past two years, few will have foreseen Vicente Del Bosque’s side being humiliated and dumped out of the competition just six days in. The obvious need for evolution within the Spanish national team I think had precluded any hope of them attempting to repeat their playing style from four years ago, and, predictably, the high-pressing, fast paced, short passing game which will always define this group of players was dropped; bizarrely however, it wasn’t replaced by anything. The entire team seemed to play without any sense of structure or cohesion. Xabi Alonso played perhaps his two worst ever games in a Spain shirt; Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta looked miles from their immaculate best; Gerard Pique and Xavi were rightly dropped after the opening game whilst Iker Casillas was truly dreadful throughout both matches.
Even amongst all of this mediocrity however, plenty of criticism was left in reserve for Diego Costa, whose failings must have been of particular enjoyment to the home crowd, bitter as they were over the Atletico striker’s choosing of Spain over Brazil before the finals. I found the bulk of this denigration unfair. Costa did indeed play poorly and his behaviour was poor also, but his deployment in the team was near senseless. Clearly nowhere near match-fit and, as the Champions league final showed, clearly not to be trusted regarding his own levels of fitness and positioned so far forward ahead of his teammates he could barely get involved in the games, to say he was set up to underperform would be putting it mildly.
Del Bosque’s loyalty to his players has been an admirable and, up till now, a hugely beneficial trait. Four years ago he desperately tried to make room for a patently unfit Fernando Torres – a decision which, though misguided, ultimately wouldn’t prove costly. His similar insistence this time around in fielding Costa however has backfired spectacularly and may even cost him his job. Spain have been hilariously horrible thus far, and sadly, it’s Costa who’s been made the face of their drastic underachievement.
What I object to far more strongly than criticism of Costa in these games however, are suggestions that his performances in Brazil indicate that his widely expected move to Chelsea this month is a mistake on the part of the club. I consider this view to be self-evidently stupid but I will look at two related concerns that have been articulated with regards to the player’s impending arrival. The first is that the player may simply be a ‘one-season-wonder’. Not a completely inconceivable notion I’ll admit, but those advocating this position I think aren’t fully aware of two things. Firstly, how good Costa has been for Atletico Madrid this season (I haven’t heard of many ‘one-season-wonders’ scoring 37 (including 8 UCL) goals in a league winning campaign) and secondly how good he was last season, in a totally different role in support of Radamel Falcao. Arguably no player was as exemplary and integral to everything Atletico achieved these past two seasons; those who suppose Costa’s contribution to the side goes no further than just a few months of red hot goal-scoring from, I strongly suspect really have no idea what they’re talking about.
Last week, ex-Premier League striker Dion Dublin went even further with his disparagement of the player and stated his belief that Chelsea’s rivals for the title next season have nothing to worry about, and that Costa simply had never demonstrated himself to be a world-class forward. Not that I ever like to question the earnestness of somebody’s opinion, but after hearing Dublin’s quotes I was instantly left wondering how often he’d actually seen the Spaniard play. I find it very hard to believe, after the year he’s had, how anyone could fail to observe Costa play and see not only a world-class forward but also a forward who is absolutely ideal to help Chelsea return to the summit of English football.
The Spaniard is a snarling, indefatigable front man who will press opponents tirelessly and, though he can be frustratingly single-minded in possession, especially whilst working the channels, he is ruthlessly consistent in front of goal, as his exceptional finishing stats indicate from last season, as he finished the campaign with a comfortably superior shots to goal ratio than both Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Costa is quite simply the best counter attacking forward on the planet. He feeds assiduously upon direct balls into the channels, making use of his strength and speed to attack as quickly as possible. He is also excellent at drawing fouls – a crucial skill in big matches where we may well have less possession than usual. His record in big games is also superb, thriving as he does as the underdog in a situation and showing a level of character and fighting spirit Chelsea were painfully lacking from their forwards at times, last season.
Mourinho’s recruitment work so far since returning to Chelsea has been fascinating. Upon arrival at the club 12 months ago he found himself confronted with a totally new challenge. Over his entire career he’d been tasked simply with achieving success in the short term at virtually any cost, now however, he is being made to form a dynasty, to last, and to potentially be coached by himself for 10 years or more. So far his signings (i.e. Willian, Nemanja Matic, Andre Schurrle etc) have all been classic Mourinho-style counter attacking players, but all are also outstandingly entertaining individualists in their own right. The real challenge for the manager next season, other than to win silverware obviously, is to create a team which blends all of the mechanical efficiency with which you associate a Mourinho team, with all the individual flair and creativity which you associate with the sum of its parts. Costa could well be the man who, as a reference point for the rest of the team up front and as a close to guaranteed source of goals, finally allows for Chelsea to play a more daring and proactive style of play, without losing the ability to be an outstanding defensive/counter-attacking unit also.
Some fools have recently proclaimed the death of ‘Tiki-Taka’ – nothing could be more obviously wrong. The impact of this generation of Spanish players can still be seen all over Europe and in the Premier league perhaps most of all, where all four major title contenders will be based around Spanish playmakers next season, in Juan Mata, David Silva, Santi Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas. And though the careers of Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, Pique, Casillas et al might be coming to an end, Spain’s days as a superpower on the international stage certainly needn’t be. In the likes of Javi Martinez, Thiago Alcantara, Koke, Isco, Juan Mata and Costa they have the making of another outstanding group of players; given the right the chance they could help Spain dominate once again.
Starting next year, it’s time for change at both Chelsea and the Spanish national team. Both are banking on Diego Costa to lead these revolutions from the front. I have a feeling both have made very smart decisions.