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In defense of João Félix

And the latest on Moussa Dembélé, along with Atlético’s international stars.

Chelsea FC v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about João Félix recently. As the 21-year-old is just a couple months from completing his second full season with Atlético Madrid, it seems the time has come to begin drawing conclusions on whether the club’s record signing has been worth the €126 million doled out for him (in installments).

It seems pretty clear isn’t clear, though many would like it to be.

We could say Félix hasn’t been an unqualified success based on the transfer fee Atlético paid, though it’s more nuanced than this. He doesn’t have a signature performance to his name in LaLiga. A group stage brace against RB Salzburg in the Champions League probably stands as his best night in that competition (he was fantastic against Bayern Munich in December, too, and was the best of a bad bunch against Chelsea last Wednesday). He’s made almost as many appearances off the bench in league play (11) as he has in the starting XI (13), as he’s battled for time up front with Ángel Correa.

And of course, much has been made of certain gestures the forward made in games earlier this season, with claims that they represent the player’s disenchantment with Diego Simeone’s methods.

Atletico de Madrid v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“In football, nothing is given, you have to work hard to be rewarded.” Félix said, in quotes carried by AS on Tuesday. “The first season (in Madrid) was (a new experience) for me, in a new league, but I knew that I had to work to receive that reward and show what I am capable of. The coach and all my teammates helped me a lot.”

So, let’s just nip the “Félix and Simeone don’t get along” narrative in the bud, shall we?

Pedri, Vinícius Júnior, and Bryan Gil are the only players younger than Félix to amass 40-plus shot-creating actions this league season, via FBref. His 2.64 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes are the third-highest average on league-leading Atlético. Despite making nearly half his appearances off the bench, he’s in LaLiga’s top-20 for goal-creating actions per 90 minutes (none of the aforementioned three are) — and his 0.53 GCA per 90 clip is more than double what he rung up in 2019/20. Not bad for someone younger than Borja Garcés.

Félix’s 11 total goal contributions in LaLiga (seven scored, four assisted) have already surpassed the tallies from his debut season, backing up what the underlying metrics say — that he is a more positive influence in buildup play. And though his inconsistencies in 2021 have overshadowed his great talent, Luis Suárez’s arrival six months ago has helped him develop further as a player.

Félix has a ways to go, of course. But remember that progress isn’t always a straight, ascendant line. Who would have thought that €70 million man Thomas Lemar would develop into a key player after watching him last season (or even the one before)? How about Marcos Llorente, reinvented into an attacking force after Real Madrid discarded him? Turning our gaze elsewhere, Alexander Isak couldn’t get a kick at Borussia Dortmund during the 2017/18 campaign — now, the 21-year-old has a dozen goals for Real Sociedad and is considered one of LaLiga’s best young center-forwards.

Don’t let a lousy transfer fee completely cloud your view of a player. João Félix isn’t a goalscoring unicorn like Erling Haaland. He’s not Kylian Mbappé, either. Who the hell said he had to be? And who are we to declare, at this moment, that he can’t reach similar heights?

Tuesday was a scary day at Atlético’s training ground in Majadahonda. Moussa Dembélé collapsed and fainted while stretching and had to leave the session.

José Giménez hustled to bring over a stretcher for his fallen teammate, who was set to undergo tests to determine what happened — but Dembélé walked off under his own power and was pictured smiling as he departed training later in the day.

Terrifying moment, but it seems he’s alright!

Here’s when you can catch Atlético’s internationals on duty with their respective national teams:

  • Wednesday, March 24 — Belgium-Wales (Yannick Carrasco), Slovenia-Croatia (Jan Oblak & Šime Vrsaljko), France-Ukraine (Thomas Lemar), Latvia-Montenegro (Stefan Savić), Portugal-Azerbaijan (João Félix)
  • Thursday, March 25 — Spain-Greece (Koke, Marcos Llorente), England-San Marino (Kieran Trippier)
  • Friday, March 26 — Burundi-Central African Republic (Geoffrey Kondogbia)
  • Saturday, March 27 — Montenegro-Gibraltar, Croatia-Cyprus, Czech Republic-Belgium, Serbia-Portugal, Wales-Mexico (Héctor Herrera)
  • Sunday, March 28 — Kazhakstan-France, Albania-England, Georgia-Spain
  • Tuesday, March 30 — Central African Republic-Mauritania, Cyprus-Slovenia, Luxembourg-Portugal, Croatia-Malta, Montenegro-Norway, Belgium-Belarus, Mexico-Costa Rica
  • Wednesday, March 31 — England-Poland, Spain-Kosovo, Bosnia & Herzegovina-France

Here’s hoping the 11 internationals all return in one piece following this round of friendlies, African Cup of Nations qualifiers, and 2022 World Cup qualifiers.