Costa suffered a herniated disc last week, and now Diego Simeone has a major problem on his hands. No, the Spanish-Brazilian hadn’t been firing, but it can never be a positive when a squad of only 22 players loses a regular starter.
Now that we’ve stated the obvious, we have to break down how serious this absence will be.
It was around this time last season that Costa also required surgery — a metatarsal operation at the beginning of December. He was out until February, as he is expected to be this time around. But last season, Atlético solved this by turning to the transfer market and bringing in Álvaro Morata. By all accounts, the club won’t be doing similarly this time around. Simeone will stick with what he has due to economic control limits that would require Atleti to sell before buying. The only sellable players in the squad right now are Costa himself and Šime Vrsaljko, and their respective injury histories would make them tough to move — even in a more-money-than-sense transfer to Qatar or China.
So, Simeone will have to look in house for solutions. Morata — who now has one goal in each of his past seven appearances for club and country — is in excellent form, meaning there is a clear No.9 option to lead the line. Alongside Morata, Simeone could opt for the 4-4-1-1 he used when Antoine Griezmann was around and have João Félix play the Frenchman’s second striker role. Or, he can deploy the 4-3-3 he has used at points this season, with Morata flanked by any two of Félix, Vitolo, Ángel Correa or Thomas Lemar.
There shouldn’t be too many issues in defining a starting XI without Costa. The problem comes with squad depth — Atlético simply cannot play the same players every game. Morata will have to rest sometime, as will the four aforementioned wide players.
The good news for Los Colchoneros is this is a fairly calm part of the schedule. Whereas winter time in England means game after game after game, in Spanish football it includes a two-week break over Christmas, a free midweek between rounds 15 and 16, a free midweek between rounds 17 and 18 and the Saudi Arabian Supercopa de España that few are expected to really take seriously. Rest will come naturally through the schedule.
There will still be a need to rotate, though, and that’s where Ivan Šaponjić could come in. The Serbian hasn’t played a second this season and his stats last year with Benfica B weren’t great, as he only scored six goals — three of them penalties — for a return of one goal every 243 minutes in Portuguese football’s second tier. But we do have to remember that he is 22 years old and not a baby. He may be able to do a job.
Then there’s Borja Garcés. The 20-year-old has been given the medical all-clear after he ruptured his right ACL and is currently focussing on recovering match sharpness. Because of his injury, he wasn’t loaned out like Víctor Mollejo and would be able to contribute. Garcés has just 19 minutes of first-team football under his belt, but he famously scored on his one and only appearance for Simeone — a last-second equaliser against Eibar last season.
There are options, therefore, for replacing Costa — both in the starting XI and in squad depth. Form notwithstanding, his injury is undoubtedly a major blow. But Atlético should be able to manage this injury fairly well, and we’ll soon see just how costly losing Costa will be.