February 23rd 2022
When Joao Felix signed for Atletico Madrid from Benfica three years ago, the Portuguese forward was the most highly-rated teenager in world football.
A transfer value of over £100m reflected the high esteem in which he was held by not only Atletico, but by the wider market, with links to a variety of clubs including tonight’s Champions League opponents Manchester United persisting.
Felix became the fourth most-expensive footballer of all-time after a single season of top flight football in his homeland, and manager Diego Simeone’s plan was for him to become the leader of the Atletico attack after the departure of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona.
Two-and-a-half seasons later, though, Felix is a bit-part figure in an Atletico team which has stalled significantly. The cut-price return of Griezmann to the club after a mediocre spell at the Camp Nou has seen his playing time diminish, and the arrivals of Luis Suarez from the same club and Matheus Cunha from Hertha Berlin haven’t helped either.
Simeone’s side won La Liga for the first time since 2014 last season, but they have struggled significantly in 2020/21 and are currently 15 points off leaders Real Madrid in fifth-place, having won only four of their last 11 matches in the league. Of the five senior forwards in the Atletico squad — Angel Correa is the other in addition to those listed above — Felix has played the fourth-fewest minutes.
The 22-year-old gave an interview with The Athletic recently in which he intimated he knew why the team was performing poorly and irritate his manager in the process. ‘I think we all know what the problem is [with the team], I don’t want to say though,’ Felix said.
‘About what Joao said, you can ask him,’ Simeone responded in a press conference a few days later. ‘I work according to the team. If he is clear about what the problem is, it would be good to know.’
Perhaps, then, a rift or misunderstanding between player and manager is part of the reason why Felix’s career has not progressed to anything like the level expected since his move to Spain. Or, he might simply not be as good as he seemed destined to become at Benfica.
Felix managed an extremely impressive 31 goal involvements (20 goals + 11 assists) in his sole season in the Lisbon club’s first team, including a strong tally of 15 league goals. It is very reasonable to assume that a teenager producing that output is very talented indeed and capable of going on to develop into one of the best footballers in the world. At the time of purchase, and considering the money they had received from Barca for Griezmann, the fee Atletico paid for Felix seemed enormous but pretty reasonable in the grand scheme of things.
Since joining Atletico, though, Felix’s output has dropped off significantly. He has posted a total of 37 goals involvements in 100 appearances which, while a respectable figure, is nothing like the kind of numbers the club would have expected from a player they invested in so heavily.
A closer look at the data behind those low goal involvement numbers reveals that Felix is struggling in a key area of attacking play — goalscoring and shooting. Per FBref, Felix has an average of xG per 90 of just 0.24 in La Liga this season, which puts him behind 75 percent of other strikers in the Spanish top flight this season.
Furthermore, just 34.6 percent of his shots hit the target, putting him in only the 38th percentile of his La Liga rivals this season. Felix has managed only three league goals so far this season, compared with 11 for most regular starter Correa and nine for Suarez.
What the xG and shooting accuracy numbers show that it is very rare for Felix to find himself in goalscoring opportunities, and that when he does, his inaccuracy is costing him and his team.
The lack of minutes Felix has been given seem to stem from a mixture of two things. First, is his injury record, with the Portuguese missing seven matches in three separate spells out this season, barring him from building up much momentum in the team.
The second is that Simeone seems reticent to trust him — of his 24 appearances in all competitions so far this campaign, he has completed 90 minutes in only three of them, and only one of those 90s has come since October. The fact that players like the 35-year-old Suarez and very effective but less talented Correa are preferred to Felix should be a concern.
As things stands, United and other teams who may have considered spending big on Felix when his stock was at its highest will be relieved they kept their cash in their wallets or spent elsewhere. Felix has not so far developed into the next generation Cristiano Ronaldo he was once billed as.
It is important to note that nothing suggests Felix is a bad player — he is clearly very talented and capable of playing regularly for one of Europe’s best teams — but rather he is perhaps not going to become the goalscoring machine Atletico (and plenty of observers) thought they were singing in 2019.
There is evidence, though, to suggest that Felix can excel in another area: chance creation and assisting. Felix’s passing numbers are superb: he is in the top eight percent of La Liga forwards for passing accuracy per 90 minutes, the top eight percent for progressive passes, the top three percent for passes into the penalty area, the top three percent for through balls, and the top eight percent for expected assists.
Felix, then, operates at an elite level in terms of setting up high quality chances for his team-mates, and provides great service to his fellow forwards when he is on the pitch and able to dovetail with them. It might just be the case that Atletico do have a world-class player on their hands, just not in the form they expected, and are not quite using him in a way which brings out the best of his ability.
The data suggests that Felix could be an excellent forward who plays a little deeper, and whose main role is to furnish his team-mates which chances rather than take the brunt of the goalscoring burden himself. A number ten more than the number nine he seemed to be at Benfica, potentially, or a central striker more in the mould of Roberto Firmino, than somebody like Suarez.
Felix can still cause Manchester United significant problems in Wednesday night’s Champions League at the Wanda Metropolitano, then, just not quite in the way that world football would have expected three years ago.
For more stories like this, check our sport page.