João Felix signed on with Atlético Madrid three months ago for a mind-bending €126 million fee. Since that time, he has played approximately 693 minutes and scored three goals with one assist. There is a sense of excitement that even neutrals feel when he gets the ball at his feet, where his assuredness and confidence with which he’s carried himself both become evident.
Diego Simeone was whistled when he took the Portuguese phenomenon off against Real Madrid and has said he has to protect him. Simeone’s heart is in the right place as it pertains to his club’s most expensive player, but another reason for this level of protection is that he hasn’t yet built a team around Félix — just one with him in it. At the end of the day, it is up to the coach to get the most out of him without curbing his development.
Antoine Griezmann gave Atlético adequate time to line up his replacement — whatever that’s worth to rojiblanco fans. That replacement arrived in the form of a svelte, pre-pubescent-looking 19-year-old from Benfica for a fee close to Griezmann’s release clause. The comparisons to the Barcelona striker are as obvious as they are inevitable given Félix’s similar role, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are similar players and that they will influence this team in similar ways.
Back in August, Cholo praised the teenager’s vision, saying it allowed him to play in many positions. But that tune changed a bit following Tuesday’s hard-fought 2-0 win over Lokomotiv Moscow.
“For sure, he feels more comfortable as a second striker,” he said. “It was his natural habitat until he arrived with us. I don’t consider this an easy position to play, you have to have a lot of things under control in your team. I think playing two strikers gives him more possibilities, he can use his vision to get free.
“We might suffer a lot going backwards, but we did it with Diego Ribas, without wanting to compare them, and with Arda (Turan) on the wings and they ran a lot and we won.”
Then again, trying to define exactly what position he will play could be a fool’s errand. Félix might start on the right, like Turan, but drift inside to free Kieran Trippier down the wing. He might be listed as a second striker on the team-sheet but play a far more wide-ranging role that includes defensive responsibilities and the tasks of a wide midfielder too.
As we know, as we continue to write in this space, Atlético are in the process of growing into something entirely different from recent years — they are trying to become less defensive and more forceful with possession. Simeone wants to dictate terms where his players can become protagonists. They want to become the aggressors, not the reactors.
So, João Felix’s job is different to that of Griezmann’s. The days of aging full-backs struggling into advanced positions are gone as Trippier and Renán Lodi now occupy the flanks where they glide behind enemy lines. There is no defensive midfielder to mind the house and Thomas Partey has more responsibilities in the centre of the park.
But these marauding full-backs might be where the issue lies.
In games where the full-backs were otherwise occupied or rested, Félix had far more influence. Trippier chased Cristiano Ronaldo when Juventus visited and was left on the bench against Mallorca and Lokomotiv. Félix scored against Mallorca and Lokomotiv.
That’s not to suggest there must be a binary tactical decision to either pick Félix or Trippier as the main source of creativity. It’s up to Simeone to strike a balance in order to find more goals — Atlético have only seven in LaLiga after seven games, their worst return under the Argentine.
Simeone is likely aware of all this. He could be holding Félix back and not burdening him with too much responsibility in the game plan. He could be easing Félix — a 19-year-old playing in just his second professional season — into life in a new league. There was never going to be a linear path to the top.
“I’m not worried about loading Felix with responsibility,” Simeone said. But his lineups are more or less a meritocracy and one must earn a place through hard work in training and consistency — something Félix is obviously doing.
The best news for Atlético? Their positioning in the tables as we begin October. They are one point off the top in LaLiga and sit first in their Champions League group after two games. And that’s before we have seen Felix highly involved for 90 minutes.
We don’t know with certainty yet what Félix will become — he has played on the left, right, centre and as a second striker under Simeone. Most recently, he has shown signs that sitting either behind two strikers or accompanying one up front is his best position. But getting the best out of such a unique talent will take time. Simeone might have to take risks in how he deploys his Portuguese starlet when the wiggle room to experiment starts to dwindle. But the rewards Atlético will reap once the coach does figure out how to best utilise the teenager will be worth it in the long run.