“He is important, because he’s focusing on his first job,” Guus Huddink told Chelsea TV. “If you have to play him as a central defender, then you are a bit in trouble. He likes to fight – in a good way – and he’s got his credentials.”
If Costa’s “credentials” are clear, they were kept well-hidden during Jose Mourinho’s final months in charge. Having scored 17 Premier League goals before the end of January, the striker only managed six more in the nine months that followed. When Mourinho was sacked in December, Costa was apportioned plenty of the blame by disillusioned supporters.
What a difference a new manager makes. Costa’s winner on Sunday at Arsenal was his sixth in as many games since Hiddink took over. After a worrying drought, there are now only nine players with more Premier League goals this season than Costa.
So, what’s changed?
“I’m going to be very honest,” said Costa in October. “Maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 per cent as we were supposed to be when we got here.
“I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game.”
Whether Costa’s honesty reveals the true issue or otherwise, the striker certainly looks more interested under Hiddink. In Mourinho’s last month in charge, Costa averaged 63.6 sprints per 90 minutes in the Premier League.
Under Hiddink, those sprint numbers have improved dramatically. Costa sprinted 63 times against Watford in the Dutchman’s first game in charge, before that increased to 77 and 71 against Crystal Palace and West Brom. The Spaniard only lasted 68 minutes against Arsenal, but attempted 50 sprints in that time. During Hiddink’s time at Chelsea, that figure of 63.6 sprints per 90 has increased to 70.6.
With Costa also registering more touches of the ball under Hiddink than Mourinho, the suspicion is that the Portuguese’s departure has re-energised the striker.
The risk with Costa, as with Wayne Rooney, is that when he is not involved he drops deep and wide in order to pick up the ball. Not only does that crowd the midfield, it also means that Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation loses its focal point.
Whether or not it is a deliberate strategy from Hiddink, Costa appears to be staying more central than under his predecessor. The below images – courtesy of Opta – show Costa’s heat maps against Leicester (Mourinho’s last game) and Watford and Everton under Hiddink.
Quantity of chances
There is no secret formula to Costa’s increase in goal return under Hiddink; he’s far more involved in the penalty area.
Between August and Mourinho’s December sacking, Costa averaged a shot every 44.2 minutes and a shot on target every 100.5 minutes. Since the new manager arrived, those averages have improved to a shot every 26.13 minutes, and one on target for every 59.7 minutes. Costa has almost doubled his rate in that regard.
Quality of chances
It is not simply that Costa has increased the number of his chances, but the quality. Opta defines a ‘big chance’ as a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range. Under Mourinho this season, Costa was the recipient of a big chance every 221 minutes. That’s increased markedly to one every 83.6 minutes under Hiddink.
An improvement in service could be one explanation for that change, but there is a more likely rationale: Costa’s movement in the area has been far sharper in recent weeks. See his run away from Laurent Koscielny on Sunday, and his determination to beat Phil Jagielka to the ball against Everton. Good things come to those who don’t just wait.
Finally, Costa’s chance conversion has also dramatically improved, from 12% under Mourinho this season to 31.25% under Hiddink.
Oscar’s loss of status under Mourinho became one of the hallmarks of the Portuguese’s final few months. Having been labelled as his true No. 10, Oscar hardly lived up the reputation.
The relationship between No. 10 and striker is obviously vital, but it declined badly in the late days of Jose. In the 172 minutes the pair spent on the pitch together between the end of October and Mourinho’s sacking, they only exchanged 17 passes, roughly one every ten minutes.
Since Hiddink arrived, Oscar has been restored to the team and the pair reunited. In their first 373 shared minutes under the new manager, 54 passes have been exchanged. The average passes between the two players has increased by 44%.