Diego Costa isn't a hothead or out of control; it's all an act

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For those in the know, Diego Costa's efforts to aggravate Liverpool last night weren't a surprise. It was just the devil within him that's been present for all of his career.

He arrived from Spain seemingly with more emotional than real baggage, coming to a league that had been used to the hot-head striker narrative thanks to the bull-in-a-chinashop carnage left behind by Luis Suarez when he jumped ship to Barcelona.

Indeed, the images beamed over from Spain before Costa's move seemed to show everything you need to know. There's a wonderful video of the Spanish international locked in an on-going battle with kindred spirit and fellow wind-up merchant Pepe during his time in Spain and it's all there; the little kicks, the shoves and the stares, and the glaringly obvious intent to get inside his opponent's head. Subsequently he's been labelled, put in a box and there's nothing more to it. 

So it was no surprise to see Costa on the warpath once more against Liverpool last night. Two stamps - which at best seem to be on the borderline - on Emre Can and Martin Skrtel were enough to send the Twitterati into overdrive, at least on Merseyside anyway. Before his first season is even done with, the die had been cast. The joke doing the rounds amongst those who watched him at Atletico Madrid was that it's surprising it took this long. 

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers failed to see the funny side of Costa's handiwork and his side's subsequent exit from the Capital One Cup at the hands of Chelsea thanks to another crucial goal from Branislav Ivanovic.

"He [Costa] is an outstanding player – he obviously has this edge to him," Rodgers said. We see the TV incidents, the two that he had.

"The one with Emre Can, that was poor, I felt. He could easily hurdle over the young player but he directs his studs right on to his ankle, which could have been nasty. And the one with Martin Skrtel – again, there’s no need to do it. "That’s the sad thing. He’s a top-class player and he’s clever enough that the officials don’t see it.

"But it’s poor by him because he’s an outstanding player and he doesn’t need to do it.”

Of course Costa has already been in a spot of bother this season at various points but last night felt like his arrival as the heir to Luis Suarez as the mischief-making king of the league. 

It's all about the background

It's not too difficult to understand why Costa is the way he is. ESPN's Wright Thompson wrote an outrageously good piece on Suarez and his inclination to bite opponents over the summer and it went someway towards explaining the mad dog that lurks within the Uruguayan. Suarez's upbringing forged and moulded him into the man he is today and it certainly seems as though the same applies for Costa.

Born in Lagarto, he didn't step onto a proper football pitch until he was 16, instead being born into the rough and tumble of the game on the streets. It was in those formative years that his outlook was formulated and set in stone. An interview he gave in 2012 is particularly revealing.

"On the pitch I fought with everyone, I couldn't control myself," he told El Pais. "I insulted everyone. I had no respect for the opposition, I thought I had to kill them. Boys who grew up playing in academies are taught to control themselves and respect others, but no one ever told me otherwise. I didn't have a school to teach me that. I was used to seeing players elbowing each other in the face and thought it was normal.

Boys who grew up playing in academies are taught to control themselves and respect others, but no one ever told me otherwise, I didn't have a school to teach me this. I was used to seeing players elbowing each other in the face and thought it was the norm."

His mean streak was evident early on his career. When he made his first big move to Braga in Portugal he was collared as an 18-year-old for a frankly brutal foul against Benfica. Before then, while still in Brazil, he received a four month ban for punching an opposition player and threatening a referee.

Don't give him what he wants

But there's an interest facet to Costa's personality that doesn't quite fit in with the narrative that he's a loose cannon, or a hot-head. Take a look back at his disciplinary record over his career. You'll see plenty of yellow cards but very few reds for a player like him. Indeed, over the last three seasons he's earned 26 yellow cards but zero reds. You have to go back to March 2010 and his time with Real Vallodolid to find the last time he was sent off in the league. 

Cristiano Ronaldo, hardly football's greatest ever bad-boy and tough tackler, has more league sending-offs than Costa has. 

That seems to suggest one thing; he's found where the line is. Costa has evolved his act from Rebel without a Cause to professional wind-up merchant who knows exactly what he's doing. From someone who thought he 'had to kill everyone' to someone who has learned to use his weakness as a strength. 

Look closely at Costa's face during his two acts of treachery against Liverpool last night. For the stamp on Can - for which he has now been charged and faces a three-match ban - he looks to be totally in control, his face isn't contorted with rage and he doesn't look as though his temper has got the better of him. He tries to disguise it as an accident, fairly convincingly. Look at the image above of the clash with Steven Gerrard. All those around him are boiling over, he looks calm.

Playing on the edge

He plays on the edge and it's a calculated risk taken by a man who views bans and cards as an occupational hazard. Costa will more likely be annoyed with the fact he's been caught stamping during the Liverpool game rather than for committing the act itself.

It seems as though that's just the way he plays the game, to be irritating and to annoy while at the same time letting his opponent think he's on the verge of boiling over. Not only does he play better when challenged to a duel but it seems to bring the best out of him and the worst out of his opponents.

Or, in his own words: "I always used to get wound up. Now I've learnt that if you don't respect your opponent, you get left behind."

There's a great example of his approach from his time with Atletico during the game against Levante in 2012. In the clip, Costa shoves Momo Sissoko of Levante while backing up into him and then flicks a head butt in his direction. Sissoko inevitably reacts and Costa falls to the ground. Desired affect achieved.

Costa's new-found ability to control his temper may also account for his upturn in fortunes in front of goal too. In the five years from the 2008/09 campaign he never managed to score more than 10 goals in a league season. With his temper in check and once Radamel Falcao had gone from the Vicente Calderon he exploded, scoring 27 goals in La Liga last time round. He has 17 Premier League goals to his name already.

Late bloomer

His late development - both on the pitch and emotionally - could be put down to the fact that he is a late bloomer. His youth career started with Barcelona EC when he was already 16; most clubs look to pick up players as young as eight or nine these days.

Whatever the magic formula is for Costa it certainly seems as though it's all come together and is working for him on the pitch. He's a potent mix of technique and tenacity and with him leading the line Chelsea are flying this season. Of course the danger for Jose Mourinho is that he loses control - he's certainly still capable of that - and that could cost the Blues given their lack of options in attack.

But if he's handed a three-game ban for the Can stamp, which it certainly looks as though he will be, Mourinho will just have to take it as par for the course. Because Costa needs to play on the edge. Without it he's less of a player, and actually a much more violent one too.

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