It’s hard, even now, to comprehend quite what happened to Chelsea last season.
Again and again, just as they looked to have found their rhythm, they dropped unexpected points.
Jose Mourinho spoke of “little horses,” tried to suggest his side was inexperienced, made more legitimate points about how he had changed the style of the team and, in the end, seemed to be let down by the lack of “real strikers”—to employ the term he rather disparagingly used after the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain.
After the Capital One Cup defeat to Sunderland, Mourinho went back to basics.
Chelsea drew their next game, away at Arsenal, 0-0. In the 16 games of the season before that game at the Emirates Stadium on Dec. 23, Chelsea scored 32 and conceded 18, averaging 2.06 points per game.
In the 22 from that draw onward, they scored 39 and conceded just nine, averaging 2.23 points per game. The switch to a back-to-basics approach worked up to a point, and Chelsea took 16 points from six matches against the other members of the top four, but their problem was that they could not finish off smaller sides.
Just as a charge seemed inevitable, there would come a blip: 3-0 against Southampton, 2-0 against Hull, 3-1 against Manchester United…but then a 0-0 draw at home to West Ham. A win at Manchester City and at home to Newcastle, and then a draw at West Brom. Three more wins, all of them professional rather than thrilling, and then defeat at Aston Villa.
Chelsea only finished four points behind the champions, Manchester City.
Home victories over Sunderland and Norwich City in the final month of the season would have won them the league.
They were supremely good at sitting back, absorbing pressure and hitting opponents on the break; rather less good at picking apart sides who sat deep against them.
Other than long-range efforts and set plays, there are two ways of unlocking a team that defends deep and in such numbers that it’s impossible to pick a path through their defenders.
One is to have a poacher, ready to latch onto any half-chance, the sort of finisher who conjures goals from the tiniest of defensive lapses.
The other is to have somebody good in the air, in part because he can convert crosses no matter how many defenders are around him, and in part because a defence cannot get too deep against a significant aerial threat—they cannot allow him to be challenging for headers in the penalty area. That in turn, can create space for others.
Diego Costa is awkward and robust, somebody adept both at getting on the end of crosses and manufacturing chances for himself.
There are two major doubts about him: the first is that, although he scored 27 goals in La Liga last season, Diego Costa had never previously managed such a haul. The likelihood is that, at 25, he was just coming into maturity, but there must be a slight doubt that it was just a freakish campaign.
More worrying, though, is that—direct and energetic as he is, intelligent though his runs proved—he isn’t great in the air.
Only two of those 27 goals came from headers, while he struggled to hold the ball up against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final. Statistics from Squawka.com show that Diego Costa won only 36 of 169 headed duels in La Liga last season.
That’s not necessarily a problem, but what it does mean is that Diego Costa is no Didier Drogba. He should score goals, and he will thrive on the through balls the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Oscar can provide, but he is not going to terrify teams into playing with a higher line.
He is better than what Chelsea have, but he isn’t necessarily the solution to breaking down teams who pack men behind the ball.