For a club record transfer fee of €126 million, Atletico Madrid got one of European football’s most prodigious teenagers and a whole lot of symbolism.
The signing of Joao Felix last summer underlined the capital club’s transformation from underdogs to a bona-fide member of the sport’s elite, simultaneously pointing at where Diego Simeone planned on taking his team next.
The Argentine recognised that ‘Cholismo’, the ideology that had used Atleti’s inferiority complex to the club’s advantage for the best part of a decade, needed adapting and Felix, a dynamic, distinctly modern attacker, embodied this intention. However, the transition Simeone planned for Atleti has yet to happen.
In fact, there has been a regression. Atletico Madrid face a fight to even qualify for next season’s Champions League. Felix, signed to be a difference-maker, has failed to find a suitable place in the starting lineup to the point where he is no longer assured of his spot.
Simeone has used Felix as a left-sided and right-sided forward, a centre forward, a secondary forward, a playmaker behind the centre forward and even a midfielder. There have been glimpses of the youngster’s brilliance, particularly at the start of the season when he appeared to have hit the ground running, but Simeone seems unsure of where best to harness that obvious talent.
Behind the central striker, Felix isn’t inherently creative enough to make an impression. He is averaging just 0.5 key passes per game this season for Atleti. For context, that’s a lower average than Koke, Kieran Trippier, Renan Lodi, Alvaro Morata, Santiago Arias, Hector Herrera, Angel Correa, Diego Costa, Thomas Partey and Vitolo.
In fact, of the Atletico Madrid players who have registered a key pass this season there are only four (Thomas Lemar, Felipe, Stefan Savic and Mario Hermoso) with a lower key passes per game ratio than Felix, and three of them are centre-backs.
Of course, Felix was never signed to be a pass-master, but in terms of his dribbling average he is lacking, averaging just 0.8 per appearance. Vitolo is averaging double that (1.6 per game) for the season. From a wide position, Felix isn’t much of a crosser either, averaging just 0.1 crosses per game.
The Portuguese is, however, Atletico Madrid’s second most prolific shot-taker, averaging 2.5 per game. That puts him behind only Morata (2.6 shots per game) and lends to the notion that he is best either as a secondary striker or as the primary central forward. That, of course, would be a similar role to the one performed so effectively by Antoine Griezmann at Atleti for a number of years.
Every player has a different personality, every player needs a different amount of time to settle.Diego Simeone
However, Felix has found the net just twice in La Liga this season. His Expected Goals (xG) figure stands at 4.8 meaning he has been less than clinical in front of goal. His xG P90 is in fact the third highest (0.33) among his Atletico Madrid teammates this season, but that hasn’t translated into his goal tally.
During the 2018/19 Primeira Liga season, Felix averaged a key contribution - either a goal or assist - every 72 minutes. At Benfica, he was used as part of a front two alongside Haris Seferovic, dropping into the space between the midfield and attack to pick up the ball and drive it forward. There was good reason to believe Felix would fill the avoid left by Griezmann in the summer.
So far, though, the 20-year-old has been something of a misfit. Simeone has attributed this to the player’s character rather than anything tactical or technical. “Every player has a different personality, every player needs a different amount of time to settle,” he explained recently. “We try to succeed in getting every signing to experience Atletico with a lot of heart and emotion, because apart from their talent they need to be committed and dedicated.
When the passion of playing for Atletico comes to them, things come naturally to everyone, just like with Savic when he arrived and Koke. I don't speak of individuals, but of the way of living the football that we have had at this club for a long time.”
There seems to be more to Felix’s struggles than just his mindset. Part of the youngster’s current inadequacy is likely down to Simeone’s failure to settle on a midfield unit, with Koke and Saul both toiling right now. Rodri was crucial in feeding the ball into Griezmann last season. Herrera, though, isn’t as efficient at getting the ball to Felix. There is a disruption in the supply line.
Thomas has impressed in midfield, but the Ghanian likes to drive forward himself into the areas Felix tends to occupy rather than feeding the ball into him.
There’s also a hole on the right side of Simeone’s side, with Lemar no closer to fulfilling his potential since joining from Monaco two summers ago. Whether it’s the system Felix is being asked to fit into or Felix himself, something isn’t working. For all concerned, the Portuguese’s signing is starting to look like a €126 million mistake.