Shades of Wolverhampton Wanderers situation for Helder Costa at Leeds United due to Raphinha challenge
The Portuguese’s signing from Wolves was expected but the response to the club’s announcement four days later was still wild excitement.
He was the shiny new winger and thanks to his pedigree in the Championship – he was Wolves’ Player of the Year in his first season, scoring 10 and assisting eight league goals – a player expected to play a big part in Leeds’s second promotion push under head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
It hadn’t exactly worked out for him in the Premier League, where after half a season he found himself on the bench with increasing frequency until his minutes dried up entirely.
In Wolves’ last 10 games of the 2018/19 season he played just 21 minutes and with Leeds offering to take him off their hands for an eventual £16m, all parties were very comfortable with a loan move that would become permanent after a year.
His first season at Leeds ended in glory and a second Championship title winner’s medal, allowing him and friend Barry Douglas, with whom he played at Wolves, to adopt the tag ‘champ champ.’
UFC fighter Conor McGregor described himself that way when he held titles in two weight divisions and the Leeds pair mimicked the Irishman’s exaggerated swagger as they walked out together to lift the Championship trophy at Elland Road.
Douglas’ season had been a frustrating, injury-disrupted one. Costa on the other hand, was almost ever present in the title success.
He played in 43 of 46 games, scoring four goals, adding six assists and, on the evidence of his continued involvement, doing what Bielsa wanted him to do.
His ability to get Leeds up the pitch quickly, the flashes of dribbling brilliance he used on the touchline, along with the improving defensive side to his game, justified his place in the team if not his price tag – he came in for criticism for the lack of return in goals and assists expected from a £16m player.
So when the Premier League season quickly rolled around, Costa assumed his place on the team sheet and made a decent start.
He was taking people on as much as ever, getting a similar number of shots away and there was plenty of energy and hard work out of possession –by mid-October he was winning more tackles and recovering the ball more times per 90 minutes than in the 2019/20 season.
Yet, just like his top-flight season at Wolves, the minutes dried up, only this time his disappearance from the starting XI came even earlier, thanks to a new challenge facing him, one that goes by the name of Raphinha.
A 24-year-old Brazilian, signed on deadline day and quickly incorporated into the squad by Bielsa, he has taken up residence in Costa’s spot and his impressive form, offensive threat, pace, and eye for a through ball, along with four goals and four assists, suggest he will take some shifting.
Costa finds himself in a tough spot and sympathy, from a section of the fanbase, is in short supply.
A lack of interviews since his arrival has kept Costa somewhat of a mystery for fans who might otherwise be more patient, if they had been given the chance to get to know him better.
Memories in football are notoriously short, but the similarity in the price paid for the wingers, versus the apparent disparity in performance makes for a difficult comparison.
Reduced to cameos from the bench, Costa is having to try and make something happen with far fewer touches and much less time on the clock than the man who displaced him.
Where Raphinha is sparkling, almost every touch lauded, Costa is struggling.
His first involvement against Leicester was a poor attempt to control the ball and seconds later he was bundling James Justin to the floor in a dangerous position.
As it happened Leeds defended the free-kick, broke from it and scored a third, letting the substitute off the hook.
Against Everton, one decent cross aside, he was unable to make a telling impact.
In the 23s last week Costa played well, yet still missed a golden chance from six yards.
The question for a player potentially shy of confidence and definitely short of form is how to reclaim it, without the necessary minutes?
Patience and backing, both of which he continues to get from his head coach, might help provide somewhat of an answer.
“Players improve, drop down and improve again,” Bielsa said last week when refuting the assertion that he gets the best out of players.
"The most competitive players get the best out of themselves and show everything they are capable of.”
If Costa is to once again spark wild excitement for Leeds, it’s time to find a way to deliver.