A €126m flop: How new Chelsea signing Joao Felix fell apart at Atletico Madrid
"The new Cristiano Ronaldo." That was the tag line for Joao Felix when he signed for Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019. Then-19-years-old, and worth a fee far beyond the realm of reason for a teenager, the Benfica youngster was already being mentioned in the same breath as one of football's greats.
It was an unreasonable yet far too easy comparison. And when Ronaldo showed up to watch Felix at the Lisbon Derby in 2019, the narrative was complete.
Nearly four years later, though, that same teenager has been loaned out to Chelsea for a fee of just under £10 million ($12m), with all of his promise unfulfilled. To say it's been a turbulent spell in Madrid for Felix would be an understatement.
But it was possible to see this coming. Felix was always an awkward fit for the Rojiblancos, and his publicly turbulent relationship with steadfast manager Diego Simeone made his spell in the Spanish capital almost predictably glum.
At the time of Felix's signing, there were two interpretations of the move. The first was that of change for Atletico. Simeone's side had finished 11 points short of Barcelona in La Liga the previous year, and crashed out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. It was perhaps time to usher in a new era, maybe even a revamped philosophy, with Felix at the centre.
And then, there was the other perspective: Felix was a terrible fit as Atleti were too defensively rigid to get the best out of him. And with star player Antoine Griezmann on the way out, there was bound to be too much pressure on the teenager to step into the Barcelona-bound star's shoes.
Accordingly, Felix struggled through his first campaign at the Wanda Metripolitano. He limped off with an injury nine games into the season, at which point he had registered just two goals and one assist in La Liga.
He returned in late November in time for two vital games, match-ups with Juventus and Barcelona. Felix didn't start against Juve, and missed a big chance inside the opening 30 minutes against Barca - a game that eventually ended in a 1-0 defeat.
Then, the rumours of a sour relationship with the manager started. Simeone publicly criticised his big-money signing in January 2020, questioning his commitment. "As well as talent you need to have commitment," he said. "When a player realises why he is playing for Atletico then everything comes together."
Those rumours were only fuelled by Simeone's apparent lack of trust in the player. Although the Argentine coach is notorious for subbing attacking players in order to hold on to leads, Felix only completed 90 minutes eight times over the course of the season.
Then came the ultimate insult: Felix was benched for Atletico's Champions League quarter-final loss to RB Leipzig - left to watch from the sidelines in the team's biggest game of the campaign.
By season's end, the youngster had tallied just nine goal contributions for club and country, 17 fewer than the year before.
It all pointed towards a young player lacking in confidence and limited by a coach who was unwilling to sacrifice his principles to accommodate a highly-touted talent. Transfer talk had already kicked-off, with Manchester United reportedly vying for Felix's signature.
His Portugal team-mate Joao Mario was quick to add to the clamour for a move away, claiming that Felix should've rebuffed Atleti, and signed for a more possession-based Barca side that was also pining for his signature.
Still, Felix reaffirmed his commitment to Atleti prior to the 2020-2021 season, telling Benfica TV: "We work very well together and that is positive.”
Simeone changed his approach the following year, and Felix exploded. He was handed more attacking freedom, entrusted with orchestrating the Atleti attack, and developed a deadly understanding with summer signing Luis Suarez. He scored five and assisted two in his first seven Liga matches of the season, and added two more in the Champions League.
Even the manager appeared to be warming to his young talent. “If he continues to show the commitment, speed, and decision making he did today then he will continue to grow,” said Simeone after Felix netted a brace in the 3-2 win over Red Bull Salzburg in October 2020.
But things took a turn again in the new year. Felix had an unlucky run, testing positive for Covid-19 before picking up a muscle injury. He did score on his return to the side, but made a "shushing" gesture in celebration that was viewed by some as a response to his difficult relationship with Simeone.
A week later, he was benched for the Madrid derby, presumably in response to his celebration antics, and only started two of Atleti's remaining 11 games.
Since then, a familiar pattern has developed. Felix has shown moments of brilliance. There was the diving header against Manchester United, followed by doubles against Real Betis and Alaves. There have been quick tricks and dramatic flicks, and glimpses of a player once mentioned among the game's elite.
But there have also been anonymous showings, long stretches of ghostly performances followed by spells languishing on the bench while his manager laments his poor displays.
It became clear in recent months that an exit from the Wanda Metropolitano was likely. Both Simeone and Atleti CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin admitted that a change of scenery could benefit the player. And after Felix starred in Portugal's 6-1 thrashing of Switzerland at the World Cup, the forgotten potential of one of the world's best young talents reemerged.
Joao Felix is ready to shine in the Premier League 💙 pic.twitter.com/OxfCKUQkMo— GOAL (@goal) January 11, 2023
And now, Chelsea. How Felix will fit in remains to be seen. Graham Potter's side don't have a reliable striker that Felix can play off, and he joins a team in tepid form.
Still, as former Benfica scout Jean-Claude Abeddou told Sky Sports in 2019, Felix "is capable of magic on a football pitch."
And for all that's gone wrong in Madrid, that magic might just reappear in west London.