Chelsea (loan), 2023-
When assessing how successful João Félix’s time at Atlético Madrid has been, it is impossible to ignore the fee the club paid for him in 2019. Then aged 19, Félix became the fourth-most expensive player of all time when Atlético paid Benfica £113m to activate his release clause. He did play a role in helping Atlético upset the duopoly in La Liga by winning the title in 2020/21, but it is fair to say that, given how much he cost, some might have expected rather more on an individual level from his three and a half years in the Spanish capital. It is very difficult for anyone to live up to the expectations that come with that kind of fee without scoring a huge number of goals.
Now, Félix is on his way to Chelsea in a loan move that indicates Atlético may be willing to cut ties with him. Having promised so much at Benfica when he became the youngest ever goalscorer in a Lisbon derby, and the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Europa League, Félix still has a lot to prove. He will hope that he can do that on the grand stage that is the Premier League.
One of Félix's greatest strengths is his movement. He thrives when he has freedom to roam around the attacking half of the pitch, and is happy to come deep to collect the ball or stay high up the pitch and receive close to the last line of defence. He moves around the pitch looking for space, aiming to receive to feet before turning and dribbling forwards. He scans constantly, meaning he builds up a picture of what’s around him, so he knows exactly where to move as soon as he receives a pass. He is a threat during comfortable periods of possession, but these characteristics make him particularly useful on transition. Following a regain, he will quickly move away from the opponent he had been tracking while his team was out of possession, before looking to receive, progress play and take advantage of the opposition being out of shape.
Although this side of his game makes him out to be something like a number 10, he is far more than that, and often takes up positions more like a number nine. He makes smart runs in behind, picking his moments to go beyond the opposition’s defence, and is composed in front of goal as well. It is perhaps only a lack of physical presence that prevents him from being a more complete nine.
This again links back to his good movement and scanning. As he isn’t strong enough to hold the ball up when pressured by a centre-back, he tries to receive away from his marker with a quick movement into a deeper space when his teammates put their head down to play a pass his way.
Another strength is how early he takes his shots. He regularly scores with his first or second touch, and given he strikes the ball so cleanly he regularly catches the opposition goalkeeper out. He drives his efforts at goal with power, often before the goalkeeper has had the chance to set themselves. He is also able to disguise his shots impressively, so goalkeepers or markers can struggle to pre-empt where he is going to shoot. After lining up a shot, he has the ability to slow down and keep control of his body to adjust and use a different type of technique to strike the ball.
He also disguises his finishing well when one-on-one with the goalkeeper, where he is able to calmly slot the ball inside the near post after shaping as though he was going to finish across goal (above). He scores most of his goals with his right foot but he can shoot with his left as well, and also scores the odd goal with his head. He tends to score from inside the box in central positions, but he also has the ability to score from range.
With the ball at his feet, Félix looks to break lines with forward passes or dribbles, and also shows a desire to follow his passes and support attacks. He will play his passes at pace, and then his own change of speed ensures that the recipient has an immediate option for a quick return pass if needed. He often does this to get on the ball between the lines in a forward-facing position, and he will take early opportunities to shoot from the edge of the penalty area. Alternatively, if the ball is worked wide after his initial pass, he will continue his run into the penalty area to attack any crosses.
That burst of speed and the timing of his pass means he often loses his marker. Here, if he does receive the ball back, he often has the time and space to take an extra touch before shooting or looking to feed a teammate. He shows good vision to find a player out wide before looking to get on the end of any ball into the middle or positioning himself for a cut-back.
Diego Simeone has used a 4-4-2 shape for most of his Atlético Madrid reign, but in recent times he has mixed things up more. Félix has almost always, however, been used as part of a centre-forward pairing. Simeone’s 3-5-2 has enabled Félix to operate as a second forward, dropping into pockets of space and linking the midfield and wing-backs with runners in behind.
Félix spent much of his time up front alongside Álvaro Morata or Luis Suárez. Here, his responsibility was to drop between the lines (below), receive on the half-turn, and look to find the advancing wing-backs, while his strike partner pinned the opposition’s defence back. Félix built up a very strong relationship with Yannick Carrasco, who was converted into a very attacking wing-back on the left.
When he played up front alongside Antoine Griezmann, Félix was asked to run beyond the opposition more, with Griezmann – just like Félix – happy to stretch the opposition or drop to receive between the lines. The two rotated well, and when Griezmann was used in a deeper position, he regularly swapped positions with Félix to pull the opposition apart. After they rotated, one of Atlético’s back three then stepped into midfield to maintain a central-midfield three. We saw Félix dropping back into positions similar to a central midfielder very often for Portugal at the 2022 World Cup. He is perfectly comfortable in positions you would normally spot a number eight.
When higher up the pitch in the 3-5-2, Félix looked good working off direct play up to Morata, who stayed high as a central focal point. With the wing-backs providing the width, Atlético then had two dangerous central players ready to finish, plus any runners from central midfield and maybe even the far-side full-back.
There were times when Félix played as the higher of the front two in Simeone’s 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, though this happened less often. Although this isn’t his preferred position, the fact that he can do either job – as well as dropping deep – shows just how versatile he is.
His agility and ability to twist and turn on the ball is most eye-catching when he is playing as the higher central attacker and so in crowded areas more often. He can drop his shoulder to manipulate his opponent and quickly create shooting opportunities within his first few touches of the ball. Although he doesn’t have the strength to regularly hold off opponents, he makes time for himself on the ball with quick, clever movements either as the ball is coming his way or after receiving.
There have also been times when Simeone has asked Félix to stay high in a more traditional front two, even when Morata or Suárez is his strike partner. This works best when Félix’s partner pins a centre-back and receives to feet high up the pitch, with Félix then moving into a wider position to create space for his strike partner to control and look for midfield runners, either from out wide or through the middle. Alternatively, Félix makes penetrative runs through the heart of the opposition’s central defence (above), which helps create room for his midfield teammates as well as threatening the opposition’s goal. This kind of clever run, taking advantage of space created by a forward who moves out wide, will be particularly useful in the Premier League, where this pattern is a common sight.
Félix has bags of talent, but after rarely looking like the world-beater his price tag suggested at Atlético Madrid, it remains to be seen whether he can now fulfil his unquestionable potential. It will be fascinating to see how Graham Potter chooses to use him and whether he can get the best out of his latest signing.
To learn more about football tactics and gain insights from coaches at the top of the game, visit CV Academy
Author: The Coaches' Voice