After Chelsea Ties Arsenal, a Feeling Something Has Been Lost

The plan that Arsenal defenders Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding hatched to stymie Chelsea’s Diego Costa in last season’s F.A. Cup final was little more than a variation on the old good cop/bad cop routine.

Mertesacker, the veteran German, was cast as the former, tasked with being “friendly” to the tempestuous Costa, “patting him on the back.” The job for the inexperienced Holding, in contrast, was to “give him a really hard time,” Mertesacker said.

After one encounter, Holding, his gaze locked on Costa, tapped a finger against his own temple, the internationally recognized sign alleging mental instability. “I just called him a nutter, basically,” Holding remembered.

By most estimates, the plan worked. Costa, who had developed a knack for unsettling Arsenal’s defense — riling them, bullying them — scored a goal but seemed uncharacteristically inhibited, his edge dulled. Arsenal beat Chelsea, 2-1.

That, as it turned out, was most likely Costa’s last game for Chelsea. A few days later, the club’s manager, Antonio Conte, sent a text message to his squad wishing them well for the summer.

Costa replied in what has been described as a “jokey” way, though precisely how good the joke was remains shrouded in mystery. Given that Costa once thought it hilarious to pretend to throw a fire extinguisher at reporters, it was probably not great. Conte sent him a private response, informing him that he was not in the manager’s plans for the future. “O.K.,” Costa sent back.

Approaching four months later, he remains in exile. Costa spent the summer in his native Brazil, occasionally interrupting his busy schedule of watching daytime television to open his door to journalists.

He was, he made clear, holding out for a transfer back to Atlético Madrid, his former club in Spain. He would not countenance moving anywhere else. When that switch did not materialize — FIFA has banned Atlético from registering players until January — Costa proved good to his word. He has still not returned to London, or to Chelsea. As things stand, he will linger on hiatus until the New Year, when he hopes Atlético will come to his rescue.

Chelsea, on the surface, has already moved on. Conte tried and failed to sign Romelu Lukaku this summer before landing Álvaro Morata, the Spain striker with the pinup good looks who had been told he was surplus at Real Madrid.

Morata has proved an almost instant success. Though Chelsea started the season slowly — losing to Arsenal on penalties in the Community Shield and then to Burnley, at home, in its Premier League opener — Morata has not, scoring three times in his first five Premier League appearances. And he has won no little adulation for his perceptive movement, his deceptive strength, and his aerial prowess.

Chelsea’s fans still think of Costa fondly, of course — he helped the club win two league championships — but, thanks to Morata, there have been few signs that the team misses him. At least, that is, until Arsenal visited on Sunday afternoon.

It is no criticism to say that Chelsea has never really become what Roman Abramovich first envisioned when he bought the club, on the brink of financial oblivion, in 2003.

It has had success, including a Champions League title, and it has established itself as one of Europe’s modern superclubs, the sort of place that young hopefuls dream of playing. By those measures, Abramovich has achieved his ambitions.

But he also had dreamed of doing all that while making Chelsea a byword for attractive soccer. The story goes that he became determined to invest in the sport when watching Real Madrid face Manchester United in the Champions League that year.

Like Mourinho, those players imprinted on Chelsea their own personalities: fiercely competitive; tenacious and tough; ruthless, and relentless, winners. They could play beautifully, but that was not their primary purpose. Chelsea emerged as a sort of anti-Arsenal: they might not have drawn as much praise for artistry during the season, but they tended to emerge with a trophy at the end of it. It did not matter who the manager was; the club’s ID was so clearly defined that it could win regardless.

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