It took a trip home for Joao Felix to finally look like an Atletico Madrid player. Until last season’s Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon, the €128 million man had struggled to live up to his price tag. He’d shown little to vindicate the colossal, record-breaking transfer fee paid for him. Some had even started to speculate his future might lie away from Atleti.
Back at the Estadio da Luz, where he’d broken through at Benfica, Felix finally emerged as a key figure for the Spanish club, converting a pressure penalty to level the score in the Champions League quarter-final against RB Leipzig. When Atleti needed someone to drive them forward, it was the Portuguese youngster who stood up.
RB Leipzig ultimately prevailed, moving on to the semi-finals, but Felix showed enough to suggest Atletico Madrid’s instinct had been right all along. The 21-year-old has built on that performance back in August, with Diego Simeone finally trusting Felix to be the attacking hub of his team. Something has finally clicked.
Felix has six goals and one assist in his last four appearances for Atletico Madrid. The brace scored in the 4-0 win over Cadiz was enough to send the capital club top of La Liga, albeit momentarily. Nonetheless, it was reflective of how the Portuguese international is key to Atleti sustaining a genuine title challenge this season. He could be the final piece of the puzzle.
The opportunity is there for Atletico Madrid to grasp. Barcelona and Real Madrid are both going through something of a generational transition this season. While the latter appear in better shape than the former, they are both flawed sides. They are vulnerable and Atleti are among those who could upset the natural order.
While Simeone’s trademark ideology, dubbed ‘Cholismo,’ is defined by the defensive structure and organisation it provides Atletico Madrid, the system needs an attacking wildcard to work. This was a role performed to perfection by Antoine Griezmann for a number of years. The Frenchman was notable in his absence at the Wanda Metropolitano following his switch to Barcelona last year.
Luis Suarez knows Griezmann and Felix well having played alongside both and the Uruguayan striker likes what he sees in the Atleti youngster. “He hasn't surprised me, because back when he was at Benfica he had already set about showing what a class player he is at a very young age,” Suarez said in a recent interview. “It's not easy when you move abroad, but in his first year, which was about settling in here, he produced moments of real quality.
"I think that this season he's really starting to get the fans excited. He feels full of confidence and, if the rest of us give him the help and support he needs, he can be a match-winner. But we can't place all the responsibility on his shoulders. If we work as a team and everyone does their bit, that'll have a beneficial effect on him and everyone around him.”
Simeone appeared unsure of where to play Felix last season, but the 21-year-old has been deployed as one half of a front two alongside Suarez. The hope is the duo will give Atletico Madrid the cutting edge the partnership between Diego Costa and Griezmann did at their peak and the initial signs have been positive.
It’s worth recalling that even Griezmann took some time to grow accustomed to Simeone’s methods and ideas. He wasn’t an immediate success at Atletico Madrid. In fact, it wasn’t until the Frenchman’s second season in the Spanish capital that he truly took on the mantel as Simeone’s creator in-chief.
By this measure, Felix is following the precedent set for him by the player he was signed to succeed. His game still requires some refinement, but that’s what makes him such an exciting prospect, and what justifies his €128 million price tag. With some improvement in a few areas of his game, Felix could be the game’s next great player.
Some argued Atletico Madrid and ‘Cholismo’ would be a bad fit for Simeone, but such claims did a disservice to how the Argentine is capable of harnessing attacking talent. He did it with Griezmann and he is finally doing it with Felix. After so much debate and discussion, Atletico Madrid might just be the perfect place for him.