“I’m your teammate!”, yelled Antoine Griezmann to Diego Costa as Costa accused the French international of not having his back after a clash with Samuel Umtiti during Atleti’s 1-1 draw against Barcelona over the weekend. Griezmann would later assist Costa’s headed goal that broke one of the most improbable streaks in La Liga: brought back to draw defensive attention off Griezmann in last winter’s transfer window, it was the 30-year-old Brazilian's first league goal since February.
Colin McGowan pointed out how Atletico Madrid have underperformed by refusing to evolve from Diego Simeone’s defensive style, and the Argentine manager’s persistence in his struggling striker highlights his emphasis on past success. Yet despite how unconvincing their performances may be, they remain just two points off the top as the identity search inflicts itself upon the rest of Spain.
This was supposed to be the year Atleti developed into a more attacking side, especially with an entire season of Costa. His goal 50 seconds into the Super Cup final against Real Madrid showed a brief glimpse of this new optimism. His initial return from Chelsea reminded supporters of how much he defined Simeone’s underdog mentality. Costa scored on his Atleti return, then scored a goal against Sevilla that demonstrated his trademark desire, pressing and finishing. That February win left Atleti just seven points behind first place Barcelona, with momentum. Instead, it was Costa’s last league goal until this November. He’s averaged just one shot per game through ten matches this season, with Atleti drawing the third most games in Spain after midtable Valencia and 18th place Athletic Bilbao. With expectations soaring and injuries nagging, perhaps there is truth in the idea that one can never go home again.
Yet there must be something more than a run of bad luck for a striker of Costa’s quality and style to go without a goal for some 22 straight league matches. We can start with analyzing the relationship between Costa and Griezmann, between old Atleti and the social media savvy, nouveau riche, Wanda-influenced Atleti. With their combination of work rate, individual brilliance and link up play, they should be one of the top attacking duos in Europe. Simeone observed that Griezmann played better with a striker ahead of him, and who else to run channels, take on center backs and give the French striker room to operate than Costa? They’ve each had experience leading a Simeone line on their own with their ability to create havoc and chaos within a match in two complimenting ways. Yet while we highlighted Costa’s struggles, Griezmann only has three league goals this season.
But each played a pivotal role in why they are currently on Atleti’s roster. In cutting through the rumors of a potential Barcelona move last season, Costa demanded Griezmann stay in Madrid after the French striker was integral in convincing him to return from Chelsea. After Griezmann was rewarded for staying with a salary rumored to be three times as much as Costa, Costa joked that his strike partner “used up all of the budget”. It was in jest, and Griezmann and Costa must know how much Atleti’s success depends on their drive with and without the ball. And even if we’re guilty of looking too much into an intense moment, there is extra attention on their personal interactions as evidenced by the clip above.
But when it comes to Costa, that anger and madness are an integral part of what makes him an essential player. After Atleti’s win against Arsenal in last season’s Europa League semifinals, Simeone praised Costa’s “rage” and “intensity” that causes mistakes in opponents in big matches (Costa failed to score in that match as well). This is part of what makes Costa so difficult to rate and place within the context of other strikers in Europe. With his combination of workrate, penchant for a scrap, and all-around link up ability, Costa is a singular player. If Costa were anyone else - or rather, if he didn’t have that personality - he surely would have been dropped by now. He exists in his own paradigm of how a striker affects matches outside of goals. After all, Costa came to Simeone’s attention back in 2011 for his ability to chase diagonal balls in training. How can one translate into numbers the ability of a player to “transmit character” within an entire side, and what would Atleti lose without him?
We often touch upon the trope expressed by Arsene Wenger that South America produces a specific type of street-honed, creative striker unable to be matched by the rehearsed movements of European academy training. To get the full context of Wenger’s observation, he said that streetball creates a shrewd player who fights and wins impossible balls. Costa is the embodiment of Wenger’s narrative, and a story increasingly rare in our ever connected social media world. Growing up in a remote section of Brazil and not playing in an organized setting until he was 16 years old, his rags to riches football story is an essential part of his stylistic DNA. For Costa, there was no such thing as a lost ball.
Yet what makes his great with Atleti is questioned at the calm, systemic style of Spain’s international play. His individuality does give the national side an x-factor ability to decide close matches with a moment. On the other hand, perhaps Alvaro Morata or Iago Aspas are more suited to playing off the short passing sequences that defined an entire footballing generation. One could describe Spain’s perfect striker as a David Villa-esque subtle player, explosive over short spaces, latching onto openings provided by the midfield. Yet is it more valuable to enhance a Plan A, or to create an Plan B option when matches go astray? Expected to add that bit of uncertainty, he did have a sequence in the World Cup opening group stage match of the World Cup where he showcased his ability to track down a lost cause and create something out of nothing. We often label 20 pass build ups leading to tap-ins as beautiful goals, but a player doing what they do best, what they are meant to do, must also be its own form of beauty even if it comes in running down clearances. But that glimmer was brief; as Spain head into the future, the biggest question is if they should even play with a forward in the first place.
One of my favorite footballing what-ifs almost happened in 2013, when Atleti turned down an offer from Liverpool for Costa. You could imagine the histrionics and hysteria if he and Luis Suarez ever lined up together on a front line. Of course, Costa didn’t disappoint when he eventually moved to the Premier League as he won two league titles with Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. His ability to create and finish chaotic moments fit perfectly with the style of the league as he finished with 52 goals in 89 matches. Of course, he also wore out his welcome with Conte and left England as its most hated player. Costa came, saw, conquered, and burned bridges all in the same.
Former Atletico Madrid technical manager Garcia Pitarch theorized that Costa could have been a great player but was missing 300 youth matches to gain experience of how to be part of a team. The counter argument would be that the rawness and inexperience of not knowing what he didn’t know got him further than learning how to be organized. Although now, as he struggles with his goal drought, one could say that it’s these aging moments when the body begins to let down the spirit where fallback programming - or lack of it - comes to the fore. He’s rumored to have another operation on his foot, as well as with a winter transfer move to China. Costa’s eventual departure is shaping up to be just as sudden as his rise with Atleti, but how else would this have ended? His youth coach in Brazil said that while he’s proud of what his former pupil has accomplished, he’s happy that trying to control Costa is someone else’s problem. And in trying to replicate a striker as singular as Costa, Simeone would then really have to change his approach.