Atletico Madrid must be patient with Joao Felix

(Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
(Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images) /

Joao Felix has gotten off to a rocky start in his first season with Atletico Madrid. Still, Diego Simeone should not be discouraged by the youngster’s early La Liga struggles.

Atletico Madrid’s signing of Portuguese wunderkind Joao Felix last July sent shockwaves across Europe.

Once the scrappy underdogs, Atletico Madrid had in recent years become more assertive in the transfer market. They had signed the likes of Thomas Lemar, Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata all for at least a €60 million fee. But never had they reached the €100M mark, which league rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid have done several times each.

Felix was being touted as the next big thing, but no one would have ever predicted Atletico Madrid to be the side that would splash over a €100M on one player, let alone a relatively unproven 19-year-old talent.

There was also much doubt surrounding the entire transfer move. Was Atletico going to be the right fit for Felix? Would Diego Simeone find a way to build around Felix? Would this mega-signing elevate Atletico’s status into being a more serious contender for La Liga?

Through seven months, all of the initial doubters are being proved right.

Over 24 games in all competitions for Atletico Madrid, Felix has scored a total of four goals to go along with two assists. In 17 La Liga games, the Portuguese talent has tallied two goals, one assist and a lowly 0.63 key passes per 90. Stats certainly do not tell the entire story, but a mere two league goals in 24 games for a €100M+ talent is not ideal at all.

As has been the case with any other struggling top transfer, Felix has been widely dubbed as a “flop” or “bust.”

To an extent, the early criticism for his under-performances are warranted because of the transfer fee and initial expectations. He has not been the game-changer fans hoped to see. And in high-level soccer, there is essentially no patience from both club management and fans.

For Felix as of late, he has not met the standards that have been placed on him from the start.

Now, in his first two months with Atletico Madrid, Felix showed tremendous growth as a forward in a short amount of time. Of course, there was the surprising 7-3 preseason win against Real Madrid where he chipped in for a goal and two assists. Then there was the highlight-filled solo run against Getafe in his first official game with Atletico.

In short, Felix raised the expectations for himself even more after his first two months under Simeone.

He contributed four of his six goals in that time period. Playing as a forward in both the 4-3-1-2 and compact 4-4-2 formations, Felix displayed an exceptional understanding of what is required of him in this role. The now 20-year-old youngster was active in his off-ball movements and found ways to disrupt the opponent’s defensive line.

But soccer fans only care about the recent production from a player, especially an expensive one, and Felix simply has not met this criteria as of late. Since October, he has recorded a mere one goal and one assist. For a player deemed to be Antoine Griezmann’s replacement, these are not the kind of numbers one would expect out of a star Atletico Madrid forward.

It is difficult to pinpoint one aspect of Felix’s play that he can work on to simply elevate his play into world class status. It is not that simple, with several components of his play in dire need of all-around improvements.

For instance, Felix’s finishing is one area where he can be more clinical. Last season in Primeira Liga play with Benfica, Felix scored 15 goals on a 29 percent conversion rate — an above average mark for a 19-year-old forward. This season in La Liga play with Atleti, he has chipped in for two goals on a 6 percent goal conversion rate, which ranks amongst the lowest in the league.

What is frustrating for Atletico is that he is taking a relatively high amount of their shots but is simply not converting his array of chances. His 2.93 shots per 90 ranks second on the team behind Alvaro Morata. And with 42 total shots taken while underperforming his 4.76 xG rate, his finishing woes are hurting the team to a greater extent than one could have predicted.

Improving his finishing will not be an easy, overnight fix by any means. It will be a big task for Felix to go from a 6 percent conversion striker to a near 30 percent rate, which is the average mark for double-digit goal-scorers in the league.

As any top goal-scorer would say, efficiency requires patience on the ball and the knack to score from difficult angles. For example, see this clear-cut miss from Felix against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final fixture.

Felix receives the ball in the penalty box after an errant pass from Sergio Ramos. Even with time and space to accelerate further into the box, he decided to take a two-touch shot and wound up sending it wide left. Felix received the ball and kept his head down while taking the shot, thus not realizing he could have dribbled in further for a higher-percentage chance.

Another key area of his play that could use a few tweaks and adjustments is his on-ball activity. Felix is superb at breaking away from trailing defenders and moving into open space. However, he also has the tendency to carelessly lose possession. He is losing possession on nearly 30 percent of his total touches in league play while also winning a strikingly low 38 percent of total duels. The Portuguese talent must be more poised when on the ball, whether it is in hold up play sequences or against an opponent’s press, especially in a side like Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.

Here’s another sequence that typifies an area of play where Felix has struggled.

He makes a good run in between Eibar’s defensive gaps and opens up a passing lane into the penalty box. However, Felix is not composed with the timing of his run and fails to corral the incoming pass. Instead, the through ball catches in his feet and he squares over to Angel Correa. Atletico were able to create a shot off the sequence, but not the favorable 1v1 situation they could have had with Felix. These are the type of sequences where Felix is still developing maturity to not rush his movements, because it would only result in a loss of possession in the final third.

As mentioned, one of the biggest criticisms of Felix’s transfer to the Rojiblancos was whether or not he was going to be the right fit for Simeone’s attacking system. Simeone is synonymous with his scrappy, hard-working, industrious two-striker formations, whether it is with the 4-4-2 or the 4-3-1-2 setup. The former La Liga winning manager is not willing to drastically alter his attacking formation or tactics, such as operating with a two-winger setup like a 4-3-3. As a result, he will not accommodate any player.

While Felix is growing more and more accustomed to the striker Simeone wants him to be, it is still unclear whether this role is the one best tailored for his style. Although he has had several promising sequences in this role, Felix is just not suited for a role which requires him to be isolated upfront and tasked with winning ground duels against stronger center-backs. Taking into account his struggles in finishing and maintaining possession, Simeone’s striker role is not getting the very best out of his talents.

So, what kind of new role could Simeone task Felix with?

Felix has shown signs in being potent in the secondary striker position — Griezmann’s old role with the team — but it did not yet generate favorable results from an attacking standpoint.

The other viable route is deploying Felix as the central attacking midfielder in a 4-3-1-2 setup. Simeone used this formation earlier in the season and selected Thomas Lemar for the central attacking midfield role but ended the tactical experiment after several games due to the Frenchman’s lack of playmaking capabilities.

Slotting Felix in behind Alvaro Morata and either Diego Costa or Angel Correa could open up a multitude of attacking possibilities. Felix is more than capable of sending in through balls to the box along with dribbling upfield into space. This role is far more convenient for him considering his touches would double and it may expand his true potential as a playmaker.

Felix certainly has the talent to one day emerge as a world class player, and it’s imporant to remember he’s still only 20, but Atletico must be patient every step of the way.

Sure, it is a fair assessment to label him as an overhyped talent based on pure output thus far, as he has not panned out the way Atletico supporters had hoped he would at this point in the season. And with Atletico’s recent track record of flop transfer signings, it’s understandable that they’re worried he will follow suit and not live up to the expectations of a €100M+ player. But he’s still in his first season in a new league and he has shown beofre that the talent is there for him to one day become a player who will consistently earn a spot on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.

For now, Felix can use the rest of the season as a developmental period. Atletico still have the Champions League to play for along with several key domestic fixtures. With strong showings in these key games, Felix can begin to mount up momentum for both Euro 2020 and next season.

As the old saying goes, patience is a virtue.

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