Have you watched Chelsea FC lately? Of course you have.
Chelsea, the coaching carousel. Chelsea, the circus. Chelsea, where new owners Clearlake Capital have committed to spending €611 million across two transfer windows in charge, sacked two coaches, and watched its bloated senior squad — a true island of misfit toys — bumble to 12th in the Premier League, not to mention a tame Champions League quarterfinal elimination against Real Madrid.
That 2-0 loss in the second leg at Stamford Bridge saw interim manager Frank Lampard stick João Félix on the bench for the Blues’ biggest game of the season. Lampard didn’t even bother playing him at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday, when Chelsea lost 3-1 to Arsenal — their sixth loss in a row.
Even a coach of Lampard’s relatively limited capability found out fairly quickly what world-class manager Diego Simeone knew for some time. It’s the one thing that has become overwhelmingly clear in the four months since João Félix swapped Spain for England — the Portuguese is a problem, and it’s not possible to build a functioning team around him.
João, who at every opportunity loves to talk about “freedom” and “attacking” and possession football, played 88 minutes over two legs against Madrid, touching the ball 41 times. He attempted 6 shots, completed 4 dribbles, and registered 1 key pass as the beleaguered Blues limped out of Europe. That was apparently all Lampard needed to see — João has played 70 minutes in 4 games since.
Look — we have to acknowledge fully that Chelsea’s severe institutional dysfunction runs much deeper than João, and he alone is not responsible for it. Yet, you just can’t help but feel this is another train that passed him by.
To hear him talk about it, though? The sense you get is that this is a player lacking self-awareness, keen to tell anyone who will listen how chained and earthbound he felt under Simeone. He is now relishing his liberation under....Lampard, Graham Potter, and Bruno Saltor, a trio for whom he’s produced 2 goals in 803 Premier League minutes. It comes across as aloof, if not naïve.
“It’s a different kind of football, the league is different,” João said in March about the Premier League experience. “Chelsea is a team that likes to attack, has the ball, dominate the game. So that is the game I like to play. I feel very free to play here and as I like. I love it.”
That’s great. I’m happy for him. Atlético Madrid should be happy for him, too.
After bashing Cádiz 5-1 on Wednesday, the Colchoneros ascended to second in LaLiga, leapfrogging a Madrid side that once held a 13-point advantage over them.
Atlético have lost one game in LaLiga since João’s departure and have played at a 90-point pace since the World Cup. That is title-contending form, the kind Simeone’s men haven’t put together in over two years. They've scored an eye-watering 13 goals in the past 3 games. For the first time since 1948, they’ve scored 5 goals in consecutive games.
“We’re thinking the same way as before,” Simeone said on Wednesday. “We’re looking to improve ourselves, to grow from defense (to attack). We want to improve each player individually, because they’re at a very good level, (and) without forgetting that many stopped believing in what we were doing.”
He’s right about that last part. The vibes around Atlético were really bad in the weeks immediately preceding the FIFA World Cup. Few players seemed to understand their assignments. Imbalances that had plagued the squad for a year (five forwards to four central defenders! One natural right-back!!!) were coming back around to bite the Rojiblancos.
These were some of the Simeone Era’s darkest times — out of the Champions League at the group stage and toiling in LaLiga. So, with Atlético’s top four place unexpectedly in danger again, the club reacted decisively.
Out went Felipe Monteiro, the aged center-back who has found his level at relegation-threatened Nottingham Forest. Out went Matheus Cunha, the striker allergic to goal-scoring — and whose spectacular fall from grace, it turns out, made him worth €50 million to Wolves.
And out went João Félix, delighted to join Chelsea for a princely €11m loan fee.
I’d argue it’s that rare transfer that’s worked out for everybody. João is like a house cat, completely convinced of his own freedom despite the fact he is wholly dependent on some coach, somewhere, fitting him into a modern tactical structure and team dynamic. That coach wasn’t Simeone. Shockingly (/s), it does not appear to be Lampard, either. João asked for this, and he got it.
Atlético, meanwhile, have been playing the best football in Spain since the €126 million man left the club (albeit temporarily, but more on that later).
No team other than FC Barcelona has picked up more points than Atleti (45) since the World Cup. The Colchoneros have the league’s second-best goal difference since Dec. 29 (plus-27). Antoine Griezmann has only improved as the season’s gone along and is likely to end it as LaLiga’s assists champion (he currently has 12), and he could also finish with the most total goal contributions (25, tied with Robert Lewandowski).
Griezmann knows his role — the areas into which he needs to move, when to pressure, when to take the baton and conduct the orchestra. As @Mr_Markoo points out on Twitter, this is part of a newfound sense of order at Atlético. I’d argue too that Simeone has listened to his players and loosened some of his stricter, more pragmatic principles — as evidenced by the number of multi-goal wins in which Atleti kept pushing to pad the lead after scoring first.
Look at the victories over Valladolid (3-0), Sevilla (6-1), Valencia (3-0), and Valladolid again (5-2). Although these teams have struggled in LaLiga’s lower rungs this season, these wins were dominant showcases and saw Atlético players all pulling in the same direction — as well as a coach empowering them to be forceful in the penalty areas. Simeone only recently iterated that “contundencia” — that forcefulness — is a quality all title-contending teams share. It’s a precise but fluid system — and it is working.
Could El Cholo have found some way to salvage João Félix earlier in the season, giving him less responsibility and playing him closer to goal? Perhaps, yes.
Will the pair work together again, giving them each a second chance? Well, never say never.
The possibility that the Portuguese returns to Madrid this summer is gaining steam, as anti-Simeone/pro-João agendas fall apart at a rapid pace. Chelsea could ask to take João on loan again, but how will the player respond to Mauricio Pochettino? The Blues’ probable next coach, whose Tottenham sides were famed for pressing insistently and running long distances, might not be who the 23-year-old is looking for, either.
While Atlético are wary of taking a loss on a club-record transfer from four years ago, it seems like a given that chief executive and shareholder Miguel Ángel Gil is not going to recoup €100 million, or €80 million, or even €50 million for a player who is averaging less than 0.5 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes in Europe’s best league. Ask yourself — if João Félix ends up back at Benfica on loan in 18 months, who’s really going to be at fault?
That €126 million commitment to sign João four years ago wasn’t my choice, nor was it yours. We all care deeply about the club’s long-term viability, but considering how well things are going now at Atlético, where the players are resubscribing to Simeone’s vision...why upset the apple cart by bringing back João? Sort out his future quickly over the summer and move on, once and for all if possible.
Because neither João Félix nor Atlético de Madrid need each other anymore.