Explaining the Success of Atletico Madrid Striker Diego Costa

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Explaining the Success of Atletico Madrid Striker Diego Costa
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Diego Costa has undoubtedly been one of the major success stories of the season, stepping into the shoes of the departed Radamel Falcao Garcia to fire Atletico Madrid to the top of La Liga and a place in the last eight of the Champions League.

He provided further evidence of his ascension to a place among Europe’s best strikers with an all-action performance in Atletico’s 2-1 win away to Athletic Bilbao this past weekend. He scored the equalising goal and was unrelenting in the pressure he applied to the Athletic defence. His marker, Mikel San Jose, was, in the words of AS (in Spanish), "a helpless Bambi up against a roaring panther."

The triumphs of this season are the climax of a long and arduous road to the top for Costa, who, after five temporary spells at other clubs, has finally established himself as a permanent fixture in the Atletico side. Having scored just under a third of the club’s goals in all competitions so far this season, as per AS (in Spanish), it could even be argued that he is now their key player.

“He is our heartbeat and gives us everything,” defender Diego Godin explained, as per AS (in Spanish), in a press conference prior to Atletico’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona. “Sometimes things aren’t going well and he is able to open up the game with his strength and technique.”

Andres Kudacki

Costa is a battering ram of a striker: Strong, quick and tireless in his pursuit of the ball. Atletico coach Diego Simeone described his work rate as "contagious," as per El Pais (in Spanish), in the wake of the victory over Athletic. He is Simeone's snarling on-pitch embodiment and the perfect striker for Atletico's counter-attacking style of play.

As Bleacher Report’s lead tactical analyst Sam Tighe recently noted, Atletico are rarely required to overcommit numbers forward, as Costa, by himself, is capable of taking one or two defenders out of the game. Others can hold back and choose an opportune moment to join the attack.

Costa likes to receive the ball in the channels and drive infield towards goal. There is something decidedly ungainly about the way he runs with the ball, like a young child whose every unsure step seems to take them an inch closer to the ground; he never seems in full control of the ball, yet still manages to spread panic in opposing defences unaccustomed to such fearless and direct running.

There is a certain element of risk versus reward to his style. He balances some of the highest dispossessed (3.7 per match) and turnover (2.7 per match) numbers in La Liga, both per WhoScored.com, with a league second-best 25 goals. His goals-per-90-minutes rate is a little lower than those of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (see table below), but he also takes significantly fewer shots than either of them.

Player Mins P90s Goals GP90 Pens NPenG NPGP90 Shots SP90
Diego Costa 2588 28.76 25 0.87 4 21 0.73 98 3.41
Cristiano Ronaldo 2379 26.43 28 1.06 6 22 0.83 199 7.53
Lionel Messi 1872 20.80 23 1.11 5 18 0.87 125 6.01
Calculations by author; underlying statistics courtesy of Soccerway.com and WhoScored.com

Costa's football education came on the streets of Northeast Brazil rather than in the academies of Europe. He would spend hours practising headers with a ball tied to a tree by a piece of rope, heading it over and over again until blood flowed from his nose. Matches were played on bumpy dirt pitches against players willing to do anything in the name of victory.

He reflected on his childhood experiences in an interview with El Pais (in Spanish) in 2012:  

On the pitch I fought with everyone, I couldn't control myself. I insulted everyone. I had no respect for the opposition, I thought I had to kill them. Boys who grew up playing in academies are taught to control themselves and respect others, but no one ever told me otherwise. I didn't have a school to teach me that. I was used to seeing players elbowing each other in the face and thought it was normal.

 

That competitive edge followed him to Europe—indeed, he accumulated more yellow cards (49) than goals (44) in the five seasons previous to this one—and although he has calmed down somewhat over the last year or so, he is still prepared to go the extra mile in pursuit of victory.

Always physical with his markers yet quick to go to ground himself at the merest contact, he is a player loved by his own supporters but loathed by those of other teams. He constantly provokes, constantly pushes up against the borders of legality; defenders become so engrossed in their personal battle with him that they forget their broader duties. It is no surprise to discover that he is the third-most fouled player in La Liga this season, as per WhoScored.com.

Chelsea have been heavily linked with a summer move for Costa, with SkyBet, as reported by Sky Sports, yesterday suspending betting on his next destination following a high volume of bets on a move to London. If Jose Mourinho is looking for as close a proxy to Didier Drogba as is available in the current market, Costa is certainly his man.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Late last year, Costa made the slightly surprising decision to represent Spain, rather than his homeland of Brazil, at international level. It was an interesting choice, not least because his abrasive style means that he is not exactly a favourite among Spanish supporters.

I was in attendance at the Benito Villamarin when Atletico took on Real Betis a week or so ago and Costa certainly did little to endear himself to his would-be countrymen. On the back of a few ugly exchanges with home defender Paulao, cheers and unpublishable chants rang out around the stadium when Costa went down injured midway through the first half. It would be fair to say that a number of Spaniards will be cheering him on through gritted teeth this summer.

Costa is unlikely to care, however, as it is his determination to succeed and willingness to do whatever is required for victory that have got him to where he is today. From the dusty streets of Lagarto to the most famous stadiums in Europe, his is quite a journey. “Costa continues to improve and he has not yet reached his peak,” Godin commented, as per AS, in the aforementioned press conference. If that is true, it is a scary thought indeed for the defenders of Europe.

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