There is a familiar lament that reappears every season in Spain, brought on by a particularly nasty foul, a rush of blood or an injury. It is then that the papers plead for protection for Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. When it happened last season, though, there was a flaw in the argument: Ronaldo and Messi were not the most-fouled players in the league. It was Diego Costa.
By the end of the year, only Real Sociedad's Carlos Vela had suffered more fouls than the Atletico Madrid striker, who has since joined Chelsea. Costa had been fouled more than Neymar, twice as many times as Ronaldo and was even further ahead of Messi. When it came to getting kicked, they couldn't touch him -- which is more than can be said for the defenders. But no one pleaded for protection for Diego Costa; they were more likely to plead for protection from Diego Costa.
"Nobody gave Costa anything for free," Jose Mourinho recently said of his new striker. "He has always had to fight a lot."
He can say that again. Or he could say this: "He is not afraid of anything; he is ready for everything." Costa won't back down. One of the reasons the foul count was so high was that unlike Messi, for example, he does not evade contact; he looks for it. He appears to enjoy the battle. Knowing that he is likely to win it helps, of course.
One columnist described Costa as having something of the "jailbird" about him. His look is a dark one, brow heavy and eyes narrowing. His elbows are part of his armoury, and confrontations have been common. He pushes and pulls, seeking opponents out, seeking any advantage. He doesn't mind a tumble too, once he has crossed the line. And he crosses the line often. For a while, he almost became a cartoon bad guy, a caricature.
Often, that image overshadowed just what a good player Costa was becoming; it feels like he has been around forever but he was only born in October 1988, had to overcome a terrible knee injury, and naturally, there was still room to progress. The doubts were pushed away: Diego Simeone admits that he had initially planned to let Costa go but by the back end of the 2012-13 season, there were signs of something special. And last season, with Radamel Falcao sold, he was astonishing.
Those foul stats reveal an essential truth: he was fouled more than anyone else. Costa was fouled a lot last season because defenders were scared of him -- and not "Don't hurt me" scared, more like "He's going to score" scared. And score he did.
For all his bad-boy image, much of the time Costa was the victim, not the perpetrator. He did indeed get singled out by defenders trying to wind him up. He was spat on and trodden on; abused, punched, kicked and elbowed. Sometimes he gave it back, sometimes he complained. Mostly he just continued and the final whistle was usually final. Usually, too, he had won. Last season a case could be made for declaring him the best player in Spain, even if his World Cup ended up being a huge disappointment.
Even the fact that he limped sadly out of three of Atletico's most decisive games -- at the Camp Nou in the league and the Champions League and against Real Madrid in Lisbon -- was a reflection of his significance. Atletico were prepared to take significant risks to include him. Hardly surprising: he scored 27 goals in 32 league games and was at the heart of everything they did.
Chelsea quickly decided that he was the striker they wanted. Atletico were keen on the sale too, as were the agents involved in the deal. For some time, only Costa himself had doubts: he had finally settled in a city, at a club; having been at seven clubs in seven years, five of them on loan while owned by Atletico, his future forever uncertain, his initial reluctance to move was natural. But by the time the two teams faced each other in the Champions League, virtually everything was in place.
It is worth challenging the normal assumption that the players who will be successful in England are the big, strong, tough ones. Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and David Silva are not exactly giants, but all have been a huge success. The same goes for Cesc Fabregas, returning to England with Chelsea. But it is true that English football is quicker, a little less controlled, and that for some players the aggressiveness can be startling; some are not ready for it. It is true too that among the first questions that English clubs ask agents about foreign players is: "How tall is he?"
With Costa there are no such doubts: he is powerful, quick, aggressive and supremely competitive. "What jumps at you immediately when you see him is his physical and psychological profile. He is a big strong guy, using his body, attacking spaces, holding the ball up and pressing people," Mourinho says.
But as the Chelsea coach insists, there is more to it than that. "His movement is incredible, his intelligence is amazing, the choices he makes are fantastic," he adds. And that's the thing that is so often overlooked but shouldn't be: Costa's mind. Mourinho wants his strikers to understand the game, and Costa does.
Costa is adept at pulling defences out of position, running into spaces that drag central defenders from their normal position, particularly to the left; sprinting into the room behind defenders; waiting for his chance to quietly, unnoticed, back away from the defender to leave himself a couple of yards; pulling the defender deeper, ready to then burst into the gap he has just opened up.
For Costa, defenders are not merely reference points, "markers" for his territory that give him a feel for his position, guiding him. He needs them and he looks for them. He heads towards them, often crashing into them, a nudge here, a shove there in order to then slip away from them again. He is not Didier Drogba, exactly, but he can also hold the ball, protecting it from defenders, "giving his team oxygen" (as the Spanish phrase has it) by waiting for support or winning free kicks.
A defence that sits deep and waits can frustrate him. He might not function so well in a team that builds slowly, reducing space and increasing control -- and it is tempting to see an element of style clash in his difficulties with Spain so far. But with space he is, in the words of one wounded opposition manager last season, "lethal."
If there was a typical Atletico goal last season, or a typical play, is was the early ball that sent him running behind the defence. Usually, the success of the play was as much about his movement as about the pass. There are some parallels between Simeone and Mourinho, a manager Atletico's coach admires. For Costa, the surroundings will be new: another season, another city. But the football should feel familiar. Defenders may have to foul him to stop him, but he won't mind. He's used to that.