Can we call Diego Costa's storming start to the season a redemption story? It doesn't quite seem to work. Act One! Our hero comes to Chelsea, is great, is a bit of a prick, and wins the league. Act Two! The next season everybody is rubbish, and his manager gets sacked. Act Three! The season after that a new manager arrives, and the footballer is great again. Yes, he's had his arc, but like most of the rest of the
club league world universe, he's been a supporting character in The Passion of the José.
Nor can we truly call him a pantomime villain, at least not at the moment. Such villains come on stage, they get booed, they twirl their moustache and enact their plan, and then they get defeated by the brave forces of heroism and audience participation. But while Costa has had his nefarious moments this season, he's demonstrated the one quality that villains, by the rules of pantomime storytelling, must never possess: extreme and remorseless competence. It's like he doesn't even know it's nearly Christmas.
Costa has scored a Premier League-leading 12 goals this season. Some have been excellent in their execution, such as his acrobatic overhead against Swansea City or his precise thump against Hull. Others — such as the winner against Middlesbrough — have been notable as demonstrations of the advanced reflexes of the proper goalscorer, who is always the best at Spot The Ball in a chaotic penalty area. And while it looks a little less impressive after Leicester's victory, Costa's all-round performance against Manchester City was, beyond the vital equalising goal, a clinic in solo forward play. A fine demonstration of how one player can harass an entire back line through clever movement, assiduous work, and the occasional well-deployed shoulder. Then he didn't even get involved in the scrap.
His goals have been important, too. Good strikers score goals, but great strikers score those goals at the right time, changing matches in the process. He scored an 89th-minute winner in Chelsea's first game of the season, an 87th-minute winner in the next, and hasn't really looked back from there. Only four of his goals have been irrelevant to the overall result; the others have been opening goals, equalisers, or winners. The latest came against West Brom, after 65 minutes of hardcore Tony Pulis-ball had kept Costa the quietest he'd been all season. All it took was one momentary lapse of judgement from Gareth McAuley and he was through, looking up, and slapping home a difficult chance from a tight angle with thrilling contempt. One point made into three. If only somebody had thought to give the defender a shout: He's behind you.
Some players' form seems to wax and wane in accordance with fatigue, confidence, and other mundane factors. Costa, by contrast, seems to operate according to some kind of quantity theory of himself. There is always a significant, fixed amount of Costa-ness sloshing around in there, bubbling and hissing, and it all has to go somewhere. When he's in a team playing well, or in a good mood, then that all goes into making him a brilliant footballer. When he isn't, or he isn't, then it all goes everywhere and makes an occasionally horrible, frequently deeply amusing mess. Then Arsenal have somebody sent off.
He's not alone in this, to the point that there's even a cliché: Take that away, and they won't be the same player. (Wayne Rooney used to get this, so they took away his legs instead.) For such players the spirit cannot be tamed, for fear of being broken. It must simply be harnessed and pointed towards football, in the knowledge that it might instead gallop off towards violence, snark, outrage, vengeance, snideness, calumny, and enraged gesticulation. You can see why he has flourished to various impressive extents under Diego Simeone, José Mourinho (for a season, anyway) and Antonio Conte (for a few months so far). Like Costa, these are managers that seem (or, in Mourinho's case, seemed) to vibrate at extremely high, possibly unsustainable frequencies. And like Costa, most of the time this works.
Whether this is actually how such footballers function, or whether Costa is really just a normal footballer sharing the same space as an occasionally unpleasant human being, is not really the point. Certainly, such rational considerations won't help us decide on his role in the season. And since we can't view him as redemptive hero or panto villain, then perhaps we should take our cue from a world drunk on superhero films. He's the enhanced supersoldier, a collection of extremely unstable and volatile forces imprisoned inside a person and put to work.
When he's safely marching in the right direction, pointed at the right people, then Chelsea are free to extend their sphere of influence across the Premier League and beyond. But when rogue operatives squirrel him away in the dead of night, then anything could happen. Cities could be levelled. Regimes toppled. Worst of all, Arsenal could have another man sent off.