The past couple months signaled a significant transitional period for Atlético Madrid. The summer transfer window saw Diego Godín, Antoine Griezmann, Filipe Luís and Juanfran all departed after stellar runs at the club.
The various outgoings indicated the club needed to bring in reinforcements for the start of a new era. Atlético’s board responded accordingly by spending over €200M in transfers while also going all in to acquire 19-year-old João Félix for a club record €126M — a move which seemingly came out of nowhere. The deal exemplified not only the club’s trust in Félix to assist in replacing Griezmann’s production, but also their belief that he can be the player to lead Atlético in this new era.
Félix comes into the club with hefty expectations considering his mega transfer fee, but so far the Portuguese international has shined just like he did in Portugal. He capped off a dazzling preseason with strong showings against Real Madrid and Juventus, and he’s notched a goal and an assist in three Liga Santander games so far.
The former Benfica talent has shown more than just potential. Let’s examine why that is.
The 4-4-2 formation has been synonymous with Atlético over the years, but this season manager Diego Simeone is trying to renovate the team.
In fact, he has not used the 4-4-2 setup at all through three league games. Against Getafe and Eibar, Simeone began the game in a 4-3-1-2 system while he went with a 3-1-4-2 that switched to a 3-5-2 in the away fixture to Leganés.
Under both formations, João Félix was tasked with playing a blend between a target man striker and a centre-forward who moves out of his line. He partnered with Álvaro Morata to form the dual-striker setup in the first two games, while he played alongside Diego Costa in the home fixture against Getafe.
See how Atlético are lined up in the 4-3-1-2 as they move the ball upfield. Every player is aligned to where they need to be in this formation and no player is merely out of position. The key in Atleti’s setup here is Thomas Lemar’s position right behind Félix and Morata — the Frenchman had accessible passing lanes to both forwards.
Both formations vary among certain players in different roles — along with the approach in build-up play. But for Félix, the role remained the same regardless of formation.
Félix’s positioning is an aspect of his play that has certainly impressed Simeone. In the screenshot above, Félix is positioned right alongside Morata as a target man. However, the Portuguese had much more flexibility to move out of his line and drop deep in between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines. Whether it was on Simeone’s orders or his personal preference, Félix hovered over to open space on a regular basis rather than staying upfront throughout the game.
For example, look at how Félix moves in between the lines in an effort to open up a passing lane and ends up far off from his usual spot. At this point in the game, Atlético were struggling to move into the final third, so Félix looked to use his positioning to progress the ball upfield.
Now, watch as he receives the ball and immediately begins to dribble down the flank into the final third. It is a simple yet influential tactic for a forward like Félix to assist the midfield in their build-up from the middle third of the pitch.
Through his positioning, Félix aimed to involve himself in play, whether in build-up or through quick transitions. The Portuguese international also displayed the tendency to move into the half-space or flank to receive the ball and continue distributing possession. He also interchanged with Lemar in that they would switch where each was positioned on the pitch, though the tactic did not have a substantial impact.
Despite a relative lack of touches, Félix’s hold-up play may develop into a strength over time. With a recurring habit of dropping out of his line, Félix has shown a capability to hold possession and distribute to an oncoming teammate — a key component for any striker or centre-forward.
An example of this characteristic came against Eibar, a team that relentlessly pressed Atlético. As he usually does, Félix dropped out of his line and moved in to receive the ball. He was able to mitigate through the tight space after he drew in two defenders and dished out a quick relay pass.
What has arguably been the most impressive highlight of Félix’s play thus far has not been his goal or assist. Nor has it been the mesmerizing solo run that garnered a penalty against Getafe. It is the teenager’s off-ball movement that deserves the most attention.
For any prototypical centre-forward, off-ball movements or runs are critical regardless of the offensive setup. These plays assist in dragging defenders off their line or countering a conservative defensive setup, such as a low block (in other words, parking the bus). More importantly, off-ball movements into space open up passing lanes which teammates can look to exploit.
Félix has not quite yet mastered this tactic, but he has shown exceptional promise. The one glaring problem is that many of these movements and runs have been wasted due to los Rojiblancos’ tendency to either play conservatively, or that they just do not anticipate his runs.
For example, see how Atlético firmly hold possession in the middle third. Lemar begins to dribble upfield from the flanks. Félix notices multiple Leganés defenders draw in to press the ball carrier, so he drifts in behind and cuts into the wide open space upfield. Unfortunately, Félix did not subsequently receive a through ball in the final third.
Later in the same fixture, Félix made a similar type of run into the same area of space. Once again, no pass came his way as he made the cutting move in behind Leganés’ 5-3-2 setup.
It is of high importance for Atlético to aggressively distribute possession to Félix when he is able to make an unmarked run into space. These movements can not only translate into the creation of goal-scoring chances, but they also unsettle an opponent’s defensive lines.
Overall, Félix has shown a moderately high understanding of Simeone’s style. The 19-year-old’s positioning balances the pitch and offers support for the ball carrier. His technique and quick off-ball movements will add a completely new dimension to this Atlético attack. In short, he has adapted well so far under Simeone due to his incisive understanding of the position and duties attached to it.
That said, there are certain tactical concerns that both player and coach should address.
Taking into account his age and the fact he is playing in a new tactical system, there are no major red flags in Félix’s game at this point. Instead, the wonderkid has a few aspects of play to shore up in addition one significant tactical component Simeone must explore.
First, Félix must look to improve in maintaining possession. Any striker or centre-forward will lose the ball at a substantial rate considering they operate primarily in the final third. But Félix has had a slightly difficult time in keeping the ball even with a relatively low amount of activity in the final third. Over his 29.3 touches per game in LaLiga this season, he has lost possession 10.3 times per game while completing 44% of his dribbles per Sofa Score. Félix has wowed with his performances, but for him to be an all-around complete forward he has to be more efficient in shielding off challenges and keeping possession.
The next area of improvement does not fall on Félix’s shoulders but rather on Simeone’s.
Atlético’s undefeated start deserves much praise, but the team should feel that this is not their best version. Their defense has been rock solid as usual, but their attack has been just good enough at best. The team has looked lackadaisical at times while in possession, and in some instances their midfield just did not have what it took to push possession into the final third.
One solution for the Argentine to truly get the best out of his team and create a tenacious attacking unit is to keep the 4-3-1-2 setup while moving Félix to a central attacking midfielder position.
Last season at Benfica, Felix quickly rose up in the world football mainstream because of his on-ball ability. Gliding through the final third, Félix always seemed to be an attacking presence given that his teammates supplied him with opportunities to do so. In Primeira Liga last season, he averaged 26.1 received passes per 90 and 5.5 touches in the box per 90 according to Wyscout. This season in La Liga, he has averaged 20.9 received passes per 90 and 2.5 touches in the box per 90. Atlético’s fullbacks and midfielders have had a difficult time getting the ball to Félix in threatening areas.
Thomas Lemar has done well in passing and dropping back to defend while in the central attacking midfielder role, but the Frenchman has not provided the creative nous required in this position. Lemar has averaged 0.3 key passes per game per Sofa Score, while he’s contributed a grand total of three passes to the box per Wyscout.
With Félix operating as the creative catalyst behind strikers Costa and Morata, Atlético should thrive in interior positions and in the half-space. He would be able to anchor the team’s attack while linking play from midfield. He can use his mobility to veer behind the opponent’s midfield line and move comfortably into open space.
The most important detail of Félix’s possible CAM stint is that he will be able to facilitate at will. Actually, the Portuguese international showed a couple glimpses of his potential in this role in the win over Leganés.
Here, Félix occupies the space Lemar would usually hover around in the CAM role. He receives the ball from Koke, dribbles for mere seconds and links up with the Spaniard again. The goal was for the two to bring the ball into the final third and they did just that.
Minutes later, Félix again dropped deep to occupy Lemar’s space. In a quick succession of movements, he was able feint off three defenders and help progress the ball upfield.
Félix is just the player to receive a higher on-ball workload. By zig-zagging his way through the final third, he can send in through balls to the duo upfront at an efficient rate. He is the type of talent defenses fear when they orchestrate their setup under a low block.
Considering Simeone’s formation innovation, it is likely he will experiment with Félix at the central attacking midfielder position once Costa and Morata are both available for a fixture.
João Félix will face demanding tests over this season, especially later this month when Atlético meet Real Madrid (again) and Juventus (again). But the club certainly feels he is ready for the major challenges ahead. He’s a gem of a talent.