“And with the number 19, Diego Costa!”
This has become a very familiar sound for Atlético Madrid fans — perhaps too familiar. After he was unable to play for the club during his first half season back in the city due to the transfer ban, and after his eight-match suspension for his unflattering comments about a referee’s mother, Costa is back and Diego Simeone is using him like crazy.
After missing Los Rojiblancos’ first two matches this season through suspension and injury, Costa has played 866 minutes out of a possible 900 across the 10 fixtures. Since his return at the start of September, the striker has started every game and was only substituted off in the 2-0 wins away at Real Mallorca and Lokomotiv Moscow. Apart from the Getafe win on opening weekend, the crowd at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano haven’t seen a minute of Costa-less football this campaign.
And this kind of Costa-ball has been ugly. It hasn’t been good. The 31-year-old is out of form and has just two goals for the campaign, one of them a penalty. It’s not like he has been impressive in build-up play either, with just two assists. He needs a rest. He needs a reboot.
So why is Simeone persisting with Costa? Álvaro Morata, who also has just two goals and who has no assists, has actually been much more impactful when he has been on, as he has been able to act as a target man by holding up the ball and he has been much more associative with his teammates than Costa.
Yet, it’s Morata who has been left out whenever Simeone makes a change up front. His minutes played are way down on Costa’s, and while a knee injury kept out the Spaniard for a time, he has been healthy for several weeks now and has played the full 90 minutes in just one of his past six appearances.
We all saw the positive impact Morata made when he came on against Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday night, and the negative impact of his substitution during the Valencia match last weekend. Shouldn’t Costa be coming off instead?
It’s hard to explain Simeone’s insistence with Costa. It could be nostalgic — Simeone has won trophies with Costa, but never with Morata. Perhaps he is playing Costa in the hope that the centre-forward can once again play like he did in 2014, or during his impressive spell at Chelsea, or in that pre-season win over Real Madrid in New Jersey. But it’s clear this Costa has been lost to the past. With just 11 goals in 54 matches since his return, it’s not going great.
A less likely theory, but one that has been floated in the Spanish media, is that Simeone wants to avoid angering Costa in the same way that Antonio Conte used to do whenever he substituted off the player. Costa may not be performing on the pitch, but he remains an important presence in the dressing room and he has been hugely important in helping the summer signings settle in. It’s being said that Simeone doesn’t want to lose the off-the-pitch benefits of a happy Costa, but I highly doubt that this is the reason he is risking results on the field.
Then, there is the idea that Costa’s time at Atlético is coming to an end. The club were already linked with Rodrigo Moreno in the summer and Edinson Cavani rumours haven’t gone away either. With Costa said to have received huge money offers from Qatar, maybe the No.19 is on his way out of the club in January and Simeone, with a small squad, wants to get the most out of him before he departs. Maybe.
To be honest, I really don’t know why Simeone is playing Costa again and again and again. It’s confusing to me. But one thing is clear, and that’s the coach’s determination to play the striker for whom he fought so hard to bring back to the club. Only Jan Oblak and Saúl Ñíguez have more minutes than Costa since the start of September. That’s baffling.