How Douglas Costa established himself as this season's most exciting player
In mid-July in Mönchengladbach, it was already clear who the key figure of Bayern Munich’s season would be. Even allowing for Robert Lewandowski’s deadliness in front of goal, Thomas Müller’s hard-to-define brilliance and Manuel Neuer’s outrageous confidence, it was a new boy at the Allianz Arena who threatened to lift the Bundesliga bullies to even greater heights.
Douglas Costa is exactly the sort of player to wrench viewers from their slumber, and that’s exactly what he’s done from the get-go in Germany. The pre-season Telekom Cup – comprised of 45-minute matches between four Bundesliga teams and held this year at Borussia-Park – was hardly an auspicious occasion for Pep Guardiola’s men, who managed to be beaten twice in one afternoon by Augsburg and Gladbach.
Yet there was already a feeling that Bayern had added something special to their armoury. Costa was arresting from the start, full of zest and energy – the exact qualities, in fact, that Bayern had lacked as they limped to the end of 2014/15 under the weight of a torrent of injuries.
One early run to the byline against Augsburg was followed by a drive across goal for Thiago Alcantara to tap in. We can now look back and say it was the first of many, even if a typically dominant Bayern found a way to improbably chuck away that particular exhibition match.
In the context of the season as a whole, the Telekom Cup is irrelevant, but the memory of it is worth recalling in one sense: talking about the first time you saw Costa in Bayern’s red is something not easily forgotten. He's the standard bearer for New Bayern, the version which refuses to countenance the possibility of vulnerability or burnout in the campaign’s home strait. He epitomises the strength and youth which Bayern believe can take Pep & Co. back to the Champions League final and, it is hoped, to the trophy.
Revisionists may claim that Costa was always sure to make it at the highest level, but it is dishonest to do so. Goal Brazil's Gabriel Pazini wrote on Costa’s arrival back in July that the €30m fee paid to Shakhtar Donetsk was “excessive”, and he certainly wasn’t alone in thinking that. It should be noted that Pazini tempered his commentary with the suggestion that Costa was “a good signing”, though the Brazilian journalist expected him to be “an option from the bench” rather than a sure-fire starter.
The continuing injury frustrations of Franck Ribéry opened a slot for Costa on the left-hand side, without which it wasn’t exactly obvious where he would fit in
Two factors have meant Costa has become so much more than an impact sub: his own drive and determination, and good, old-fashioned luck. The continuing injury frustrations of Franck Ribery opened a slot for Costa on the left-hand side, without which it wasn’t exactly obvious where he would fit in.
During his five-and-a-half years at Shakhtar, Costa played many of his matches either wide on the right or in a No.10 position; despite his blistering pace, his close control and the sheer precision of his left foot often suggested that the chief playmaker role might be where his long-term future lay. Playing in place of Arjen Robben hardly seemed likely, underlining Pazini’s misgivings about his viability as a first pick.
Though he and Ribéry are very different players, Costa has followed in the senior man’s footsteps as closely as possible with his vigour and directness, setting the tone for Bayern’s ruthlessness in the early part of this campaign
Costa has, in the end, turned out to be the solution to a problem that nobody dreamed possible. Ribery may be Bayern royalty, but his shadow hung ominously over the first half of Bayern’s year, peaking with the acrimonious exit of long-serving club doctor Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt as infuriation over the Frenchman’s readiness to return reached fever pitch. The ex-Marseille winger had become an expensive millstone, a top-wage earner who has been neither reliable nor sellable since the start of last season. Costa has removed that dependence on Ribery so that the former France international’s return to action will be a bonus rather than a desperately required imperative. Though he and Ribery are very different players, Costa has followed in the senior man’s footsteps as closely as possible with his vigour and directness, setting the tone for Bayern’s ruthlessness in the early part of the season.
The opening goal that Costa scored against Olympiakos in the Champions League in late November epitomised his season so far. When Roberto parried Jerome Boateng’s shot, Costa rushed forth in a flash, smashing the rebound in before any defender – or attacker – could blink. This blur of red from the left flank has been the enduring image of Bayern’s season to date. Costa is simply firm, fast and first.
Taking the initiative
There was never the sense that he was Shakhtar’s heart and soul, like Fernandinho, Darijo Srna or even (today) Alex Teixeira, a player capable of stepping forward and bending an occasion in the direction he wanted it to go
It had seemed for so long that he would be a player who was pretty to watch but never quite fulfilled. Magnificent as Costa could be to watch, there was never the sense that he was Shakhtar’s heart and soul, like Fernandinho, Darijo Srna or even (today) Alex Teixeira, a player capable of stepping forward and bending an occasion in the direction he wanted it to go.
There was no doubt that Costa could be decisive; he was, for example, the Ukrainian Premier League’s leading assist provider in 2012/13 with nine. Yet it was also in that campaign Costa clashed with Shakhtar’s veteran coach Mircea Lucescu, who felt that his young star was not exactly busting a blood vessel for the cause.
That could hardly be further from the case now, with Costa on Bayern's frontline. The results are evident, with the Brazilian approaching his best-ever assist total (seven in 12 Bundesliga games). Rarely has a player seized an opportunity at one of the world’s leading clubs so firmly. With or without Robben and Ribery, Costa is a huge asset. It is already up to them to fit around him, rather than the other way around.