Atletico Madrid’s mega-money signing of Joao Felix in 2019 was one of the more curious football transfers in recent years.
The €126m (£113m) fee was an enormous sum for Atletico to splash out considering in the past they had not been regarded as big spenders in La Liga. There were also eyebrows raised over Felix’s fit in Diego Simeone’s system: could one of Europe’s most exciting teenage forwards flourish in a defensively-minded team? Or would his talents be subdued by the structure?
Three years after the move it’s clear that things haven’t worked out.
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Felix has not flourished. He is yet to hit double figures for goals in a season, has been in and out of the team at times, and has never performed at a consistently elite level. There has also been speculation over the last few windows that he could leave Atletico, despite being under contract until 2026.
Felix has been given a good run in the team by Simeone this season but has failed to shine, with his recent derby performance against Real Madrid particularly uninspiring. Against Sevilla at the weekend he was named on the bench and Atletico produced arguably their best display of the campaign to win 2-0.
“Today, the team played as a team again,” said Simeone afterwards. “Working together, being in a block where we were comfortable and coming out very quickly.”
It was reported afterwards that Felix headed straight down the tunnel after the final whistle, having come on late in the game, and missed the post-match celebrations.
So what’s going wrong?
“From my point of view, it is a problem of regularity and mentality,” says Eurosport Spain’s Jorge Ordas.
“Since his arrival, the price paid for someone so young was looked at with a magnifying glass and he was compared to Antoine Griezmann, who had just left the team being a star. Perhaps it was too much pressure for someone so young that, although he has left great flashes, he has not had continuity in his game.
“It doesn't help that defences are sometimes so aggressive to cut him off, something that 'erases' him from the game. Certain attitudes where he seems angry or out of the game also do not help his growth.
“He had a good pre-season, with good performances such as the friendly against Manchester United. In his debut in La Liga against Getafe he gave three assists and it seemed that this could be the year of his explosion.
“However, little else has helped the team despite him having started practically every game.”
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Felix has turned into a conundrum for Atletico fans.
When he hasn’t started games and Atletico have performed poorly there have been questions over why he has been on the bench and whether Simeone, with his defensive tactics, is the right manager to get the best out of him. But when Felix has started he has rarely looked like taking control of proceedings, and in three years at the club has never done so on a regular basis.
There have been clear moments of frustration; angry walk-offs after being subbed, kicking the bench, a veiled comment earlier this year that “we all know what the problem is [with the team], I don't want to say though”. There was a moment last year when Felix ended a four-game scoring drought against Villarreal and put his finger to his lips in the direction of the bench. He didn’t score again for the rest of the season.
Right now Atletico could desperately do with Felix stepping up. Alvaro Morata has not been a regular scorer and Griezmann hasn't netted since September 7. Matheus Cunha hasn't got a goal this season.
But can Simeone get the best out of Felix?
“It is not new that every time Felix is not a starter, a lot is written and talked about his disagreement with Simeone,” says Ordas. “The truth is that, publicly, words of respect and education have been exchanged. Simeone is used to working for a long time with young people until they are fixed for him, but Felix's adaptation is taking longer than expected.
Joao Félix se lamenta en el Leverkusen-Atlético
Image credit: Getty Images
“Simeone has known how to get the best out of Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Arda Turan and Griezmann. I think he is a coach who takes advantage of his players very well, although he has to count on their blind trust.
“Perhaps this is the problem with Felix; sometimes it seems that he does not fully trust the process of his coach.
“If Felix makes the effort to try to adapt to the system and Simeone is aware that this is, without a doubt, his most difficult student, they will be able to achieve something good for everyone.”
Time may be running out for Felix at Atletico.
There were reports in the summer that Manchester United tried to sign the 22-year-old. There will surely be many clubs out there who feel they could turn Felix into an attacking star and could perhaps sign him at a cut price if things don’t work out this season. Perhaps Atletico will be tempted to cash in, even at a loss.
“It's up to him,” says Ordas about Felix’s future.
“At the club they blindly trust the investment made and, despite the fact that there have been important offers in the last two summers, he is considered a key player in the project.”
A key player, but for how much longer?
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