“Careful what you wish for.” It’s the motto of accepted wisdom, most recently offered in the direction of “Wenger Out” Arsenal fans, the general gist of which is that some individuals are very hard to replace.
For Chelsea fans this summer, their similar issue may well be beyond the discussion stage: Diego Costa’s time is up. The final chapter of Antonio Conte’s handling of his only remotely troublesome squad member was completed in just 13 text-messaged words: “Good luck for the next year but you are not in my plan.”
Conte’s keenness for clarity is one of his finest characteristics, but this was an appropriately tense way to bring their working relationship to a close. After a season in which Chelsea’s nerves weren’t stretched too far by their relatively light workload, Costa still found opportunities to push his new manager’s buttons; the sense is that Conte really doesn’t need that drama again with another 10 games or so added to the 2017-18 equation.
The high school breakup over text message, though, might be something of an anticlimax to a 36-month association in which Costa has packed in more aggravation than most players could hope to in a decade. It has been three Netflixian seasons of cliffhangers, and there doesn’t appear to be any mutual energy left for a fourth. Costa’s exit route remains unclear: Madrid, Milan or Jorge Mendes’ whim are the current options.
Once his departure is officially negotiated — Conte leaving a box of Costa’s DVDs, shoes and pot plant outside for him to collect, perhaps — Chelsea face the most expensive dilemma in football. The annual summer scramble for the precious few available goal scorers is a burgeoning industry all on its own. After all, nothing adds the zeroes on the end better than the latent promise of 30-plus goals a season and a buying club’s desperation for it.
In that spirit, Romelu Lukaku’s giant frame fits the bill for Chelsea: four and a half years Costa’s junior and still barrelling away on his upward curve since finding a home at 2013. With the inescapably huge fee comes a big name with an even bigger thirst to prove himself at the second time of asking at Stamford Bridge.
Filling Costa’s boots, though — as any new striker’s arrival will inevitably be framed — is more than just about goals. While Lukaku and Harry Kane respectively stormed to 25 and 29 Premier League goals last season, thanks to some emphatic, carefree finishing when the space opened up, Costa’s own haul of 20 was painstakingly carved out. Quite simply, nobody makes the role of centre-forward look like such hard work as he does.
Where Kane and Lukaku are well-established finishers, Costa’s goal scoring seems more of a happy byproduct of the snarling graft he puts in elsewhere. He is a handful, an irritant (both more subtle art forms than they look, given Costa’s solitary red card to go with 30 yellows in three seasons) and often a one-man military force whose aim is to destabilise an entire region.
With the ball at his feet, though, Costa has perhaps been underappreciated. To call it “dribbling” would be misleading — it’s more of a heavily armoured shuttling of the ball upfield, having plotted the most direct route possible through enemy territory. Technically, he is far better than he first appears; control of the ball looks constantly on the cusp of being lost underneath 6 feet and 1 inch of sinew and sweat, but rarely is. The left and right channels of Premier League pitches will breathe a photosynthetic sigh of relief when Costa is no longer pounding them, either in possession or maniacally in search of it. He has been Chelsea’s No. 19: a classic No. 9, but with a little extra.
Scoring, unsettling, dragging the team forward, stationing himself at his own near post in the same way Didier Drogba once selflessly did for the team — there was never any danger of Costa disappearing from games, which is a lingering suspicion about Lukaku, meanwhile, that he is yet to shake off.
Logic suggests that Lukaku would improve on his 110 shots and 25 goals if and when he swaps Everton’s blue for Chelsea’s, but Costa will leave a serious body of work for his nominal replacement to live up to. Last season, when Chelsea’s self-restoration coincided with their centre-forward’s regained focus, there were some masterclasses in leading the line. An uncertain early season trip to Swansea was salvaged with a bicycle kick that earned a point and almost decapitated Kyle Naughton in the process.
The 3-1 win over Manchester City at the Etihad in December was almost entirely Costa-powered — pundit Gary Neville described it as “one of the best Premier League performances I’ve seen from a centre-forward” — and set Chelsea firmly on course for the title. Eight days later, with West Brom’s Pulisball proving hard to crack at Stamford Bridge, Costa kicked down the door with his irreplaceable blend of violent precision.
More than any other striker in the division, Costa’s goal haul is almost secondary to his extracurricular contribution. Anyone witnessing him — defenders, pundits, fans — are left with the impression that he has squeezed everything out of the talent and work ethic that he has cultivated on his circuitous, rough-edged route to the top. Consensus will be that the entire Premier League will sorely miss him, however grudging that sentiment will be for opposition supporters.
In reality, everyone gets broadly forgotten in the end, but no matter where they look or how much money they throw into the search, Chelsea won’t ever have a striker like Costa again. Even the ice-hearted Conte might hesitate before he deletes that number from his phone.
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