João Félix: Is it now or never at Atlético Madrid?
It was late October 2020, and João Félix was in the form of his fledgling Atlético Madrid career. A brace in the Champions League had sealed a crucial come-from-behind 3-2 win against RB Salzburg, before two goals apiece in wins over Osasuna and Cádiz got Atleti's LaLiga campaign off to a flying start.
Finally, Los Colchoneros were starting to see just why their club had paid Benfica €126 million for the tenacious youngster. Due to injury and the time needed to adapt to a new city, a new club and new style, Félix had failed to live up to expectations in 2019/20. He was a statement signing, a sign of intent from Atleti in the wake of Antoine Griezmann’s departure to Barcelona – but question marks over his attitude and suitability to a Diego Simeone scheme proved difficult to shake off.
In February 2021, with Atleti’s grip on the title fast loosening, João Félix scored a goal that appeared to have a greater significance than mere table standings. Having volleyed the ball past Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo with all the venom he could muster, Félix wheeled away in anger, not joy, putting a finger to his lips and shouting, "shut the f*** up!" This was Félix as Diego Simeone had envisioned him at Atleti; the balletic, crafty playmaker made in Lisbon, who pivots and shimmies wherever the game takes him, but with the added steel and nastiness required to star in a Cholo side.
In those autumn months of 2020, Félix was heralded as the saviour of the number 10, a breed fast approaching extinction in the modern game. Across Europe, more and more traditional playmakers were finding themselves sacrificed for less individualistic team-players. The modern game dictates that the carefree 10 is a passenger, a luxury not suited to pressing and running.
Those resurgent times for Félix feel a world away – now, there are more questions hanging over his head than ever. Atlético haven’t had a bad start to the season – with four wins from six games they sit second in LaLiga and are yet to taste defeat – but things are not clicking as they should. Their title defence began with hard-fought wins against Celta Vigo and Elche, before a comical injury-time own-goal salvaged a point at home to Villarreal. Last-gasp come-from-behind wins away at strugglers Espanyol and Getafe have done little to inspire confidence, and neither did consecutive goalless draws at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano against Porto in the Champions League and Athletic Club in the league. Last season, Simeone said that his team must suffer for points, but even by his standards, this seems a little too early in the season.
It must be said that Félix has played little part in Atleti’s exploits so far. After fracturing his ankle while playing for Portugal at Euro 2020 he underwent surgery, though in recent weeks he has made his return to the side. However, it is unclear where he fits in moving forward. Antoine Griezmann controversially returned to the club on deadline day this summer, but he looks a shadow of the player that left for Barcelona two years ago. The performances of Griezmann - whose transfer fee funded the purchase of Félix – have given off the air of someone crowbarred into an already-well functioning attack. The Atleti machine wasn’t broken, but the Atleti hierarchy tried to fix it anyway.
Then there is the issue of Luis Suárez. Atleti shrewdly acquired the Uruguayan after he was discarded by Barça and he duly fired them to the title. However, there as a heavy over-reliance on the ageing striker, and that has come back to bite Atleti so far this campaign. Until his recent brace rescued his side against Getafe, Suárez had looked sluggish and off the pace.
Ángel Correa has stepped up in his place, but as we learned last season, the attacking midfielder cannot be relied upon to score 15-plus goals a year. Matheus Cunha was signed from Hertha Berlin, but he will understandably take time to adapt to playing at a higher level. That leads us back to Félix; there really is no excuse for him not to become Atleti’s main man this season.
So why has it non really worked out for him so far? For starters, it’s fair to say that the 2019 Golden Boy winner has had his fair share of bad luck with injuries.
“Félix was severely hampered by recurring ankle problems last season, the same ones that made his 2019/20 season so difficult at times”, says journalist Jeremy Beren. “In the first half of last season, he was playing as well as anyone in Europe, even Lionel Messi. With improved health, I think the consistency will follow and combine with his obvious talent.”
“Now he’s coming back after surgery but has a lot of rivals to compete with Luis Suárez, plus Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha arriving and Ángel Correa in great form”, adds Sam Leveridge, football journalist and Atleti season ticket holder.
Aside from injury woes, there are also concerns over how exactly Félix fits into Cholo’s side. “For me João choosing to join Atlético was always an odd one from a style point of view,” says Sam, “simply because it means he has to work harder to fit in and won’t have the same freedoms other coaches might give him.”
During his first season in Madrid, Félix did at times look like a square peg in a round hole, an expensive playmaker struggling to adapt to the rigours of life under Simeone. That year there was no room for a number 10 in Atleti’s 4-4-2 system, but last season with the arrival of Suarez and a switch to 5-3-2, things improved.
“Suárez coming in has helped him”, says Sam. “They’re very different profiles, and I think they complement each other quite well as João drops and Luis is on the shoulder of the last man.” But despite the aforementioned glimpses of what he can do at Atleti, injury and poor form have conspired to get in the way. “Simeone hasn’t been able to really tailor the system to him because he hasn’t really been at a consistent level for more than a few months at a time”, says Jeremy.
“I’m not quite ready to say he’s a bad fit for Simeone, but there have been valid questions about his work rate and comfort level. How much of that was due to his attitude or due to the ankle injuries is up for debate. We might get our final answer this season.”
Certainly, those questions surrounding his attitude have been merited this season. 18 minutes after coming off the bench in the goalless draw with Athletic Club, Félix was booked for a flailing arm. His protestations at the referee were so intense that he was swiftly showed a second yellow card, before he stormed off the pitch and angrily booted a ball into the stands. He received a one-match ban for the dismissal, and an extra game for his conduct. The incident spoke of a young man frustrated with the reality of his situation at Atleti.
In the end, there’s only one person that can make the João Félix experiment at the Wanda Metropolitano the success it really ought to be, and that’s the man himself. Having failed to score in three of their last four games, Atlético could really do with the creative spark that has been too easily extinguished over the past two years. If he fails to live up to his potential this time around, you wonder whether Félix’s time in Madrid might be up.
To stay up to date with João's return to action and how he gets on in the Spanish capital, follow us at @LaLigaLowdown.