Atlético Madrid is known as a place where attacking talent goes to die.
The list that lends weight to the claim is long and hard to dispute. Luciano Vietto, Jackson Martinez, Alessio Cerci to name a few. Occasionally though, whether by act of providence or perfect timing, a star appears and stays.
João Félix, the Portugal wunderkind, is on track to rise above all and every player Diego Simeone has taken under his wing.
The 20-year-old is going supernova this year. Unshackled, nobody can hold him back. After seven league games this season — two more in a 4-0 win over Cádiz on Saturday — he has five goals. That’s one shy of his total from last season. Perhaps most importantly are his touches per game, which have increased from 39.8 to 53.4 per 90 minutes. He is now the fulcrum of Simeone’s attack.
At the price Atlético paid for Félix, you could argue it would be harder not to turn him into a star. Simeone, though, requires a specific mentality in his players before placing trust in them. Antoine Griezmann went through something similar after arriving from Real Sociedad in 2014 and just about came out unscathed before turning into one of the three best players in the world. Call it an apprenticeship, a form of purgatory, a test — Félix’s time on the periphery was longer than most. Some players never recover the fire they had when arriving at Atlético and leave soon after. Others stay the course.
After he signed from Benfica in the summer of 2019, Félix had two ghosts peering over either shoulder. The first one was the spectre of Griezmann, the world-class attacker he had replaced. The second one was the price Atlético paid to acquire his services — a record-breaking €127 million. If Griezmann and, indeed, Eden Hazard hadn’t started life at their new clubs in such tepid form the same year as Félix arrived at Atlético, he might have been the sole focus of all the pent-up frustration only Spanish football commentators can muster. Instead, patience was called for and patience was granted, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic split the season in two.
“This is a great moment for him,” Simeone said recently. “I hope he can have the consistency so he can position himself to give us important things.”
For Simeone, Félix’s talent has never been in question. The coach said that it wasn’t how well Félix was playing that had tongues wagging, it was the consistency with which he was deciding games as he glided past defenders.
“He always had good moments but what has people talking is the consistency, and the continuity in his play and in his work,” Simeone said after his number seven’s man-of-the-match performance against Osasuna last week.
Félix was goaded constantly to show his best on a weekly basis. The performance against Red Bull Leipzig at the tail end of last year was a promise, and his efforts this season has seen him come good on that promise. He is still slight like a teenager, his face looking like an ad for moisturising cream, with his hair still cropped like a student back from a summer in San Francisco learning English. But there is a ferocity in how the Portuguese plays now, a vitality in the way he moves and seriousness about how he bends games to his will. Where once he waited for the ball, now he prowls.
Luis Suárez has helped him with this attitude shift. The Uruguayan’s arrival on a free transfer sent a message to the league that Atlético were in it to win it now, not later. There would be no rebuilding period. At 33, Suárez’s best years are behind him, but he knows how and where to move to enhance even the best players in the world. He played for years with Lionel Messi, and while the Argentine would have been the stand-out player of his generation regardless of who was beside him, Suárez built an understanding with his former teammate that helped and benefitted both of them.
Suárez recognises brilliance and cannot abide by poor service. He can’t move like he once did, but deliver the ball into a specific area at a specific time and he is still lethal, as his five goals from six games can attest. All players know this, but not all players can execute the kind of pass he needs.
João Félix can, and Suárez constantly encourages him to be the creative, attacking force he was put on this world to be. And Marcos Llorente’s energy and enthusiasm as the lungs of Atlético’s attack — along with Suárez’s instinct and nous — allows Félix’s brilliance to encompass all. This is his team now.
For every message Simeone has sent Félix about his consistency during press conferences, Félix has responded.
“We were happy with the ball,” he said after Atlético beat Red Bull Salzburg last month. “We played well, and playing like that the results will come and we will have great games.”
The message was simple. Félix wants the ball. His displays merited an increase in his minutes on the field, and his voice has started to carry more weight. His shoulders, too, are ready to carry more of the burden, despite his slight frame.
João Félix has arrived — and with Atlético and LaLiga crying out for a new superstar, the timing couldn’t be better.