Maybe João Félix can feel the end is close, his departure from Atlético Madrid on the horizon.
Maybe Diego Simeone saw the World Cup and thought it was time to give the Portuguese attacker more freedom in his line-up.
Or maybe — and this is the most likely thing — is that this is another false dawn. But against Elche on Thursday night, we got to see what Atlético might look like with an inspired João Félix and a sharp, confident Antoine Griezmann in attack.
The collaboration, at times, looked seamless.
It was a very brief period during Atlético’s return to action after the World Cup, maybe 20 minutes, but any club thinking about taking a chance on the 23-year-old Portuguese might just have been convinced. He scored the opening goal of the game and he took six shots, three on target — the only three on target that Atlético managed before Félix was taken off after 66 minutes.
Félix shone at the World Cup in a similar role to the one he played Thursday against Elche. He was nominally the second striker, but himself and Griezmann played more like free 8s. Geoffrey Kondogbia and Pablo Barrios stayed behind them — the latter given license to push forward or drop deeper and generally make a nuisance of himself as Elche tried to pin him down.
Félix grabbed the headlines, but it was Barrios who made it all happen with a tireless and brave display in his home debut. It’s a pity a player like him didn’t come along earlier during Félix’s time at Atlético. Who knows what might have been?
Much like a quarterback who has reads he progresses through on any given play, Barrios’s first option was to always look forward and find Félix between the lines. If Félix wasn’t available, he looked to Griezmann before eventually taking a safer option if those passes weren’t on.
And more often than not, he made the right decision:
The most frequent recipients of Barrios’s passes were Kondogia (9) and then both Griezmann and Félix, to who, he passed the ball eight times. Elche made it easy to find Félix between the lines. They either weren’t expecting him to pop up in such dangerous positions, didn’t think Atlético had the guts to try to find him in such tight pockets of space, or just didn’t have the capacity to stop him.
The longer the game went on, the more Barrios and Félix’s understanding grew. Once Félix knew that Barrios could and would try to find him, he started moving more, which boosted his involvement in the game overall.
For a brief moment in the second half, Félix actually grew into the Atlético jersey rather than shrink while wearing it.
Again, it might be too late to salvage anything from Félix and Cholo Simeone’s relationship. Too much has been said, too many chances given and not enough taken. There has been an erosion of trust over time, as CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín openly admitted during the World Cup, remarking that it would be better if the Portuguese attacker, Atlético’s record signing, would leave the club.
Griezmann, le grand facilitateur, that one essential cog that seems to make everything run smoothly, is playing his best football in a few years. And with the untarnished exuberance of Barrios, mixed with Félix’s preternatural ability, this version Atlético might excite fans again if a deal can’t be reached with one of the Portuguese’s suitors.
Or maybe Elche on a rainy night at the Metropolitano during that dead space between Christmas and New Year’s is as good as it will ever get.