Chelsea short of proper striking options beyond talisman Diego Costa
Jose Mourinho’s sense of frustration was obvious. On Friday last week, he told a press conference that Diego Costa would be fit to play in the Community Shield, despite suffering a hamstring problem in the friendly against Barcelona in Washington DC last week. Come Sunday, though, the striker wasn’t even in the squad.
It’s not uncommon for managers to be duplicitous, of course, but in this instance, it seemed Mourinho had been telling the truth. "Will Costa be fit for Swansea?" Mourinho asked after Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal. "I don't know. You think I'm lying, but I'm not. Two days ago he was ready to play and yesterday he trained normal. The next time you ask me about Costa's fitness, I prefer not to answer. Maybe yes, maybe no."
The real issue, though, is not Mourinho’s relationship with the truth, but the state of Costa’s hamstrings. The problem first surfaced in the 2013/14 season, when Costa, then at Atletico Madrid, often played through pain before breaking down in the Champions League final. Last season, he missed a total of 73 days with the problem, and even when he did play, there was a lot of background murmuring about the hamstrings.
The way Mourinho told it, Costa came to him after training on Saturday and declared himself unavailable. Perhaps both player and manager will be more willing to take risks when the league season gets underway: there would, after all, be nothing more frustrating than aggravating the problem in what is essentially a glorified friendly. But the point remains that Costa’s hamstrings are fragile and by them - realistically - hang Chelsea’s championship hopes.
Last season, looking at league stats only, Costa scored 20 goals in 2085 minutes of football, Loic Remy seven in 668 and the now-departed Didier Drogba four in 856.
In terms of strike rate, that suggests Remy and Costa are much of a muchness; Remy actually takes fewer minutes to score each goal than Costa and, while that’s at least in part down to coming off the bench against weary opposition, he also scored valuable goals in big games against Tottenham and Manchester City. Radamel Falcao scored four goals in 1287 minutes for Manchester United.
But other stats show the true value of Costa. He averaged 2.9 shots per game and Remy 1.6. You could spin that to suggest Remy is more efficient, of course, but the truth is that Costa is a master at finding avenues for shots where others would not.
Had Remy played as much as Costa had, you suspect that comparative shortfall in the number of shots he managed would have had an impact on his goal return. Plus there’s the fact that when Costa is having shots, he is occupying defenders; they’re thinking constantly about him and not about runners from midfield or initiating counter-attacks themselves.
Costa (1.3) won nearly twice as many aerial duels per game as Remy for Chelsea (0.6), made more than five times as many key passes (1.6 to 0.3), completed nearly three times as many dribbles (1.1 to 0.4) and was fouled twice as often (1 to 0.5). At Queens Park Rangers, Harry Redknapp decided that Remy needed a strike partner, which was what led to his strange dalliance with 3-5-2.
At Chelsea, though, he is asked to play as a lone frontman and as a consequence, often looks lightweight. In the Community Shield, he was ineffective - and offside four times in the first half.
Falcao, who replaced him at half-time, was little better, continuing the sluggish form he showed at United last season and in the Copa America for Colombia, whose coach Jose Pekerman has also reached the conclusion the striker can only be used in a front two.
His shots per game (1.5) last season were roughly half Costa’s, he won half as many aerial duels (0.7), played fewer than half as many key passes (0.7) and completed fewer than half as many dribbles (0.5). He was, at least, fouled the same amount (once per game).
In the Community Shield, the best that could be said of Falcao was that he touched the ball 27 times, 17 more than Remy had in the first half. Neither, though, convinced. If Diego Costa’s hamstrings are as vulnerable as they seem, Chelsea’s striking options look thin.