If recent rumours are to be believed, Diego Costa’s ongoing injury may ensure he is not included in Spain’s final World Cup roster. The Spanish national team coach, Vicente Del Bosque, has said that all players traveling to Brazil must be 100% fit by June 2nd, something that now seems impossible for Costa. After the past year of confusion and debate over Costa’s switch to Spain, his omission would seem strange and highly unexpected. However, could his absence be a blessing in disguise for Spain and their hopes of repeating as World Champions?
It seems counter-intuitive to say that a team losing a goal scoring machine like Diego Costa could somehow increase their chances of winning (not necessarily making them better, that’s a different argument) but if there’s one team in this World Cup that may benefit from the absence of their best pure striker, it is Spain.
Diego Costa was going to provide Spain the natural striker they have been missing for a while now. His addition to the Spanish side would increase their goal scoring ability, which when combined with Spain’s famous possession skills, would make them a hard team to beat and consequently, the team no one would want to play. If Costa is left off the team, the excitement and fear surrounding Spain would be diminished; however, so too would the pressure. Instead of being one of the tournament’s favorite, without Costa, Spain would be given as much as a chance as other European powers (which is to say slim, since no non South American team has won a World Cup in South America).
In the recent past Spain has been the favorite in every tournament it has entered. Costa’s absence and the subsequent decreased pressure may lift a burden of high expectations off of Spain. This may allow the Spanish players to feel more relaxed on and off the pitch. Without the expectation of winning, the team won’t be playing not to lose (something that has hampered them recently) and instead may feel free to take more chances and consequently create more chances.
Additionally, the allure of Spain has withered away with its Confederation’s Cup defeat to Brazil and Barcelona’s recent slip in form. Costa’s presence was a big step in regaining the fear that most sides felt when facing Spain. With the declining admiration of Spanish football and without Costa (and without a proper in-form striker) Spain’s reputation will not be as daunting as in previous competitions. Thus, teams may decide to play less defensive and give attacking a go when facing Spain. If so, space on the pitch would open up and Spain may see more chances than they are used to.
Although the loss of Costa may seem to hurt Spain’s scoring opportunities, it may in fact do the opposite. The striker’s absence and how opposing teams respond to it may actually make the team more dangerous than in the past and thus, may light their path to victory.
Costa’s injury may benefit Spain in another way as well. The World Cup is a tricky tournament. National teams don’t have a lot of time together and as a consequence, their tactics, strategies, and the on the field understanding between teammates is limited (hence the abundance of sloppy play in recent World Cups). This is why the presence of pure striker is usually so vital to success in the tournament. A few goals at the optimal time or a striker catching fire can be the difference between a long run in the Cup and a long flight home. However, once again Spain may be the exception here.
It is likely that almost half of the players representing Spain in the World Cup will be from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Further, almost the entire expected first team will be from Real Madrid and Barcelona. On top of that, the first team squad will be almost identical to the team that has started for Spain over the last 4 years. This gives Spain a strong identity, an understood strategy, practiced tactics, and a close on field relationship between the players which helps creates a dynamic where each player knows what each other is capable of and more importantly, what they are likely to do in each situation. This builds confidence between the players and thus, allows players to anticipate, rather than wait, giving Spain in edge over their opponents. In short, Spain’s lack of diversity increases its cohesion and consequently, provides a distinct and vital advantage over their opponents.
Although Costa brings a lot to the table, his presence and his ability may also hurt what Spain does best. Spain loves to play with a false nine (usually Cesc) and create chances and defend through their possession in midfield. With Costa on the field, the Spanish midfielders and defenders may feel pressure to try to set up and feed the striker instead of doing what they know best; using their familiarity and combined skills in the center of the pitch to win matches. Moreover, Costa (like any good striker) would demand and want the ball, as too would the midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, and Busquets.
Therefore, it is not out of the realm of belief that one tie or bad game could cause tensions to rise between the desire to play in the midfield (the old guard) and the desire to play the ball forward (Costa and critics of tiki taka). Such an argument or discussion could help ruin Spain’s best attribute— their strategy based around their cohesion and familiarity—and help doom their chances in Brazil.
Spain has been extremely successful due in large part by playing their unique brand of soccer that wins games by controlling games through their exceptional midfield. If Costa’s absence allows that trend to continue, so too may the trend of Spanish titles.
Diego Costa helped Atletico Madrid win trophies over the past two years and will probably do the same at Chelsea in the future. Therefore, it is not surprising to think that his absence from Spain’s World Cup team negatively affects its chances at repeating as champions. That is until you remember that what works best in World Cups—reduced pressure, familiarity, and cohesion– is what Costa’s absence gives Spain. To win a World Cup a team needs to be excellent and receive a lot of luck. Diego Costa’s nagging injury and possible omission from the squad may be the first stuck of luck Spain needs.