Costa return a good thing for Simeone and everyone associated with Atletico
At last Atlético Madrid have found a replacement for Diego Costa. His name, as you might have noticed, is Diego Costa. The Brazil-born Spanish international striker arrived in the city on Friday is back after Chelsea agreed to a sale worth €65 million. It is the biggest transfer fee Atlético have ever paid and by a long way. A third more than they paid for Radamel Falcao and a €27m mark-up on Costa's price three years ago, it pushes the limits of their budget to the edge of the league's financial controls and may yet precipitate sales, but it is what Diego Simeone wanted. Badly. It is what Costa wanted too, just as much.
Simeone felt that there is no one out there quite like Costa; he always suspected as much but that conviction has deepened since the striker left. It has only been three years but Mario Mandzukic, Jackson Martínez, Fernando Torres, Kevin Gameiro, Ángel Correa and Luciano Vietto have all arrived. There were sales and signings and players they unsuccessfully pursued -- Alvaro Morata and Edison Cavani, among others -- but Simeone never stopped lamenting the one he lost.
He wasn't entirely satisfied by the replacements: Jackson never quite settled, Mandzukic didn't have the dynamism, Vietto vomited in the first sessions (although that's normal), Gameiro is swift, but small. They all had something, but not his thing. Simeone never found someone who did quite what Costa did, who could stretch the game, occupy defenders and score goals like him.
Still the search went on. Eventually, it led back to the start. It is not that those strikers failed - not all of them, anyway - and some still have a future. But, consciously or not, they weren't what Simeone sought. At times, he looked for something different -- you can hardly see Correa or Gameiro in the same mould, for example -- and styles have shifted, but eventually he came back to his original idea.
Of all the signings since 2014 only Antoine Griezmann can be seen as an unqualified success and even he didn't change the desire to recover what they lost. Instead, he deepened that feeling: Imagine if we had them both? Signed in the summer that Costa left, the French international has been a gigantic success, perhaps even more so than Costa. He scored the first goal at Atletico's new stadium last weekend and Simeone likened him to Luis Aragonés, calling him a crack. Griezmann, his manager said on Wednesday after Atlético defeated Athletic Bilbao, "is different -- he makes us fly."
It is tempting to respond that Costa makes them fight. There's something about him that fits, that's very atlético. There's a reason -- there are many, in fact -- that Simeone wants him. There are plenty of good players out there, but he wanted a bad one. That's simplistic and unfair but there is something in it: With Costa there's the temperament as well as the talent, the particular skills he brings. And no one knows better than Simeone what those skills are.
As for Costa -- teammates insist that the player and the person are not the same thing -- Atlético was his place. His Chelsea rebellion is not just about Antonio Conte's rejection, it is about his desire to find a route home.
Costa was a huge success at Atlético, but it is more than that: He was made there. He had come to Europe having barely played structured football, rough and raw. His manager at Valladolid, José Luis Mendilibar, talked about how he could occupy four defenders on his own: "He has this trick of not looking as good as he really is." At Rayo Vallecano, Costa's manager José Ramón Sandoval said, part conviction, part motivation, that he was the best striker in the world. Teammates said he was "frightening," even in training.
But it was at Atlético where he really took off and it was at Atlético where he definitively became a centre-forward. To start, they had expected to sell him and only a knee injury prevented one summer move. Then Simeone saw him in training and was overwhelmed; Costa was absolutely everywhere. His first outstanding season, 2012-13, saw him play off Radamel Falcao, usually from wide. In the Copa del Rey final, Costa scored at the Bernabéu on the night that a 14-year wait for victory over Real finally ended.
When Falcao went he took centre stage; Simeone saw the striker in him when he didn't. The next season he scored 36 goals: He got 27 in 35 league games and, in the Champions League, eight in nine. Atlético won the league title and, although everyone has assimilated that, it really was an astonishing achievement. However, they lost the European Cup final to Madrid in Lisbon and Costa lasted only eight minutes before succumbing to injury. It says something about his importance that Simeone risked him at all. It is a decision he may regret and, with hindsight it may appear foolish, but they felt they needed him.
Soon the fate of many an overachieving team befell Atlético, as along came Chelsea to pay Costa's buyout clause. In England, he won league titles in his first and third seasons. In Spain, meanwhile, Atletico didn't collapse -- another Champions League final followed in 2016, bringing with it another cruel defeat to Madrid, this time on penalties -- but they missed him. Simeone, especially. They went to Jackson, Mandzukic, Vietto, and Gameiro but only Costa is Costa. Even Torres isn't and, at Atlético, Torres is everything. And so Costa came back, three years later. Everyone, but everyone, is delighted. Atlético fans think he may be the missing link.
Things have changed. They have a new home now and Griezmann is the focal point of the team, although the doubts about his future linger. Tiago is a coach not a teammate. Arda Turan has gone. Thibault Courtois, who went to Chelsea with Costa, isn't coming back, unlike Filipe Luis, who did. Gabi, the captain, looks like he may be slowly phased out. Correa and Carrasco are there now and Vitolo is on his way in January. Some of the mechanisms have changed but the identity remains; it is still home and a simple idea has driven much of this: The sense that Costa is the right player in the right place, that he is theirs. He fits.
"I had a special understanding with him," Koke said on Thursday. "Every time I had the ball I knew what movement he would make and he knew that I would give it to him. Every pass was almost a goal."
But will it still be the same? There is a hint of nostalgia in this signing and questions remain. Three years have passed; it's not a long time but nor is it nothing. There's the fact that he can't play until January and that he has been largely inactive for three months, while it will be interesting to see how he fits alongside Griezmann, who responded to the news with a tweet that sang: "Is coming hooome, Is coming hooome."
Costa has already been working with a fitness coach from Atlético for the last three months. And now, under the guidance of the legendary Profe Ortega -- a man who some smilingly say is a sadist, a man who can drive 25 younger men to desperation and exhaustion and emerge with a grin on his face, a man who spent the morning of the Champions League final doing laps round San Siro -- the real work begins.
His weight will come down, his fitness will go up and he will be immediately incorporated into sessions with the rest of the squad; not just physical, but also tactical. Emotional, even. He will soon be part of the group, one which he largely already knows and one that mostly welcomes him. And on Jan. 1 he'll be available, in time for the second half of the league season and, more importantly, the knockout rounds of the Champions League. That is the club's real target, this season and next.
At Atlético they recall that his breakthrough in 2012 came after missing the first half of a season with injury, so trust that a six-month break is not insurmountable. The mechanisms should not take him as long to learn as it took others and, besides, they will be tailored to him. He, like no other, should make them work. He will give them an extra dimension.
That, at least, is the belief. There are also those who believe that, never mind the fear he won't be as good as he was last time, he will be better. England will have improved him while his "rescue" will be the perfect motivation. There was no striker this good on the market for Atlético this summer and certainly no striker so suited, nor so familiar. Better the devil you know and, in part, it's precisely a devil that they sought.
And then, beyond all that, there is something else, the simplest thing of all: Simeone. If there's one person everyone trusts at Atlético, one person they will listen to, one man they would follow to the end of the world, one man who knows, it is him. And Diego Simeone wanted Diego Costa. He has done since the day he left.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.