As Diego Costa conceded possession for a season record 10th time on the Old Trafford turf on Sunday, Chelsea fans groaned in unison.
The team was 2-0 down, to the old maestro Jose Mourinho, and was doing nothing to offer any hope of getting back into the game.
Eden Hazard was being smothered by the imperious, persistent Ander Herrera, Pedro was being hustled out of the game by Matteo Darmian and The Blues’ attacking threat was limper than it had been all year.
Why was this the case though? Surely a team that has dominated this year’s Premier League has more attacking outlets than a diminutive Belgian winger?
Well on paper, Antonio Conte has a world-class striker up front, a striker who boasts 17 league goals and has a Player of the Month award to his name. An untrained spectator of Sunday’s game in Manchester would have likely inquired whether this striker was injured, because there was no-one demonstrating any such pedigree.
He was there though. Whether he was getting unnecessarily tangled up with Marcos Rojo, rolling on the ground to gain the referee’s attention or simply giving the ball away, Costa played 90 of the worst minutes that he’s shown since his 2014 move to Chelsea.
His battle with Rojo had clearly rumbled the Spaniard, in the way that we all know is possible, yet Costa’s performance didn’t step up it so often has in these situations. Quite the contrary. He crumbled.
With Hazard muffled by Costa’s international team-mate Herrera, the striker was often the only outlet for the counter-attack, and was responsible for carrying the ball onwards from the halfway line. The way he assumed this role was increasingly painful to watch as he, somewhat arrogantly, continuously overran the ball into a crowd of Manchester United defenders, ignoring his Chelsea team-mates and allowing for easy possession turnovers for The Red Devils.
This wasn’t just a one-off though. Costa’s general play, especially his decision-making, has been way below par since the turn of the year. Already lacking a traditionally cute touch, Costa’s legs have turned to concrete over the last four months, as the ball has refused to stick to his feet and his blatant lack of finesse has terminated countless attacking opportunities for The Blues. The harder he has tried to overcome this, the worse it has become.
Costa’s play has never been as aesthetically pleasing as his counter-parts such as Sergio Aguero or Harry Kane, but he’s always managed to outscore these issues. Before the turn of the year, this is what he was doing, leading the line in a relentless manner that was seeing experts tip him for Player of the Year.
In 2016, he scored 14 in 18 and was flying. In 2017, he has three goals in 12 league games to date and is heading towards a crash landing.
It doesn’t take a genius to suggest a potential reason for this downturn in form. In January, Costa was subject of endless speculation regarding a potential move to China, and the word on the street was that he was keen to go. Having already been denied a move back to Atletico Madrid in the summer, many considered that any further effort to keep Costa in London would be the final straw.
A brief public spat between Costa and Conte looked worrying for Chelsea, but before we knew it he was back in the team and the cash-filled cracks had been painted over. The Spaniard has never shied away from revealing his inner thoughts, however, and recently claimed in an interview that he was happy at Chelsea, but less than happy in London.
If that doesn’t suggest that a player already has one foot on an aeroplane out of the club, I don’t know what does.
Judging from his performances, Costa’s focus is not solely directed towards Chelsea’s title charge. The problem the team has is the lack of any alternative. Fans are screaming for £32 million signing Michy Batshuayi to be given more of a chance, but Conte isn’t having any of it.
However badly Costa plays, he will still be in the starting XI the next weekend and that is a toxic mentality for any club in any position. There’s no motivation for him to win his place in the side, and the lack of pressure to perform has led to him doing his own thing on the pitch, and failing miserably.
Tottenham Hotspur are charging up behind Chelsea, as the 12-point gap has been chiselled away to a mere four points with six games to go. In contrast to Chelsea’s attacking issues, Mauricio Pochettino’s side are scoring for fun, with goals coming from every angle.
Kane’s absence from injury even went relatively unnoticed as Dele Alli and Heung-min Son stepped up with the goods. If Costa doesn’t start contributing soon, a second Premier League medal in three years could be snatched from him and his Chelsea team-mates.
A move to China in the summer looks likely for the Spaniard, with Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku already hotly mooted as big-money replacements for Chelsea.
However, whatever unwritten agreements are on the table, the season is far from over and if Costa is to go out on a high, then he needs to snap out of this awful streak of form that he is in.
He’s had a rollercoaster career at Chelsea so far, but he’s been undeniably brilliant and to go out on a title-winning high would be a fitting and amicable end to the tale.
Nevertheless, the toxicity in the relationship between Costa and Chelsea fans is brewing increasingly aggressively as every poor game passes. If he doesn’t return to the battling warrior that we all admire, it could be a very sad ending for Costa at Stamford Bridge.