With Wolves looking to bring former Chelsea favourite Diego Costa back to the Premier League, would this be a golden finale to his career or is it too late for him to make a difference at a club desperate for goals? Adam Bate looks at the numbers…
Injury to Wolves striker Sasa Kalajdzic at Southampton has set off a chain of events that has led us here. The prospective return of Diego Costa. Not everyone is convinced that any move will work but most feel compelled to keep their eyes on it to find out.
For three years, Costa was a snarling presence in the Premier League. His goals had taken Atletico Madrid to the title and he repeated the feat with Chelsea. Twice. Opposition fans hated him. Opposition players hated him. Everyone wanted him on their team.
There are lots of good reasons why Costa is not the answer to Wolves’ problems. Reasons, presumably, that persuaded the club to pay upwards of £15m to bring in someone else just days earlier rather than turn to the out-of-contract forward then.
Costa has not played professional football in 2022. He will be expected to play off memory – but those memories are still fresh in England. This is a player last seen on a Premier League pitch celebrating his role in what remains Chelsea’s most recent title win.
Indeed, Costa was the man who helped Chelsea to each of their last two Premier League titles. He scored 20 goals in both campaigns, firstly under Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte. Striker has been a problem position at Stamford Bridge. Costa made it his own.
But since then goals have been harder to come by. He has not hit double figures in a league season since. The edge is still there in his mind. Perhaps not in his ageing body. And yet, Atletico Madrid won trophies with him. Atletico Mineiro did the double in Brazil.
Wolves would welcome that winning mentality. It is a squad that has been shorn of senior figures. An abrasive personality on the pitch might be useful. Off it, there will be hope and expectation that – as a native Portuguese speaker – he could adapt quickly.
What is certain is that Wolves need some help.
The defence has been good. No team in the Premier League has conceded so few goals this season. But no team has scored fewer either. This is a continuation of a theme at Molineux. Wolves were the team whose games featured the fewest goals last season too.
They are not short of mobile forwards in Daniel Podence, Pedro Neto and Hwang Hee-Chan. Speaking to Lage recently, he said: “Daniel is one of the best guys to link the play between the lines. Neto is more aggressive in spaces. Hwang is very good on diagonals.”
He might have added that Adama Traore is just about the quickest player in the Premier League and new-signing Goncalo Guedes is a wide forward of real quality. But what none of these players have been able to bring to this Wolves team is goals.
Podence has at least scored twice this season, matching his total from 26 Premier League games last season. But Neto now has one goal in his last 26. For Traore, it is one in 27. The now departed Conor Coady scored as many as those three put together last season.
Podence’s slightly fortuitous finishes aside, there is little sign of that changing. Both he and Raul Jimenez squandered clear-cut chances in the goalless draw at Bournemouth. Guedes is without a goal in his first six games. Hwang is out of form, bereft of confidence.
All of which should be taken into account regarding Costa. He lacks mobility but that is less of an issue when there is movement around him. If he is just a head on a stick inside the penalty box then perhaps that is no bad thing when it is what Wolves need.
Lage has a functioning team in two thirds of the pitch. That was evident at Tottenham where Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Matheus Nunes controlled the game in midfield. Wolves had more of the ball until Harry Kane headed in the winner from close range.
It felt like a game that would have ended differently had Wolves had someone – anyone – to head in their own crosses. Lage must have seen it the same way when approving the signing of his two-metre tall Austrian. He believed this was the missing piece at Molineux.
Those crosses have not been a particular feature of Wolves’ game under Lage. The 588 that they attempted last season was the third fewest of any Premier League team and far fewer than in any of the three previous seasons under Nuno Espirito Santo.
But perhaps that was in part due to the players available. Jimenez was once a real threat with his head. In the 2019/20 Premier League season, no player scored more headed goals than the Mexican. But his fractured skull understandably changed things.
Jimenez, now playing with a protective headband, has scored 10 goals for club and country since returning from that injury but none of them have come with his head. Speaking to Lage in February, he acknowledged this was proving a challenge for the player.
“From my point of view, the band does not give him the same power and direction with the ball,” he told Sky Sports.
“That is a big change. We cannot forget that. Sometimes he touches the ball and the ball goes in a different direction.”
Lage added: “We know Raul scored a lot of goals from heading. It is time to adapt to a new reality.” Kalajdzic was supposed to be the start of that new reality. Costa might be more of a plan B, brought on to change games, but it is a change, nevertheless.
Would it work? That depends on Costa’s fitness levels and appetite. But it also depends on Wolves. Right now, they have evolved so far away from a team that accommodates this type of striker that it would be an adjustment for everyone to utilise him effectively.
Wolves have had the lowest percentage of shots from inside the penalty box of any Premier League team this season. The ball goes wide and it is recycled back into midfield where, typically, the attack will end, for better or worse, with a long range shot from Neves.
Costa needs that ball to go into the box much more often. More than 85 per cent of the shots that he has taken during his Premier League career have come from inside the box – a higher percentage than any of the most prolific shooters in the league at that time.
The key question now is whether these statistics indicate how desperate Wolves are for a penalty-box presence or how ill-suited their style of play is to that presence.
Supporters have noted how Diogo Jota has thrived at Liverpool. They see Fabio Silva, who failed to find the net in 26 appearances last season, already scoring six goals on loan at Anderlecht – more than Wolves have managed as a team since he left.
Jimenez was once regarded as one of the most complete strikers in the Premier League but has six goals in his last 37 appearances in the competition. Kalajdzic completed only two passes, both inside his own half, in that truncated debut against Southampton.
Would Costa look an isolated figure too or could he be the man to make sense of the work of Wolves’ creative players? That lofted Traore cross that has some screaming about a lack of end product looks different when headed home. That Neto cut-back too.
Not everyone is convinced. But it would be fascinating to find out.