Joao Felix is aiming to reignite his career at Chelsea on loan after underwhelming at Atletico Madrid, which he joined for an eye-watering 126 million euros ($135 million) in 2019. The Portugal international arrived from Benfica as one of the most expensive signings of all time, despite having played just 26 top-flight games.
Atletico hoped coach Diego Simeone could mould the talented forward into the club's next Antoine Griezmann, whom he was signed to replace. Desperate to fill the void left by the French forward's departure to Barcelona, Atletico overpaid for Felix and his hefty price tag burdened the striker.
The silky Portuguese forward and his coach never seemed an ideal pairing, with their different ways of viewing the game, with Atletico CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin acknowledging the tensions between them in December.
"(Felix) is the biggest bet this club has made in its history," Gil Marin said." I think he has world-class talent, as a player and a person." But for reasons it's not worth getting into now -- the relationship between the coach and him, the minutes he's played and his motivation right now -- make us think the reasonable thing to do, if a good option appears for him and the club, is at least analyze it."
Felix's first campaign saw him take Griezmann's No 7 shirt, but he struggled to match his predecessor's work ethic off the ball, an important tenet of Simeone's game. Even though the coach's football became less defensive and more expansive in the 2020-21 campaign, which saw them lift the title, Felix flitted in and out of favor.
The striker excelled in short periods at Atletico, displaying flair and exquisite technical qualities, but without the consistency to match. In the first half of 2020-21 his performances were crucial as Atletico only lost one of their first 22 league matches, but injury set him back and it was Luis Suarez and Angel Correa who were they key attacking figures on their way to the title. It proved Felix's only trophy with Atletico Madrid, who have struggled since.
Identity crisis. The club has been embroiled in an identity crisis, with Simeone taking a half-step to create a more attacking style that played to Felix's strengths without fully committing to the new direction. When the chips are down, Atletico have returned to their safety-first, defensive ways -- muscle memory for Simeone and his team, but no longer executed with the same confidence.
"All the frustration that (Felix) has means I'm not giving him what he needs to show his talent and the football he has," Simeone said.
The conflict over Atletico's soccer has affected supporters too, divided over the club's direction and whether the coach is still the best man for the job.
Griezmann returned in 2021 on loan, leaving Felix battling with him, Correa, Matheus Cunha and this season Alvaro Morata for a regular start.
He managed a total of 10 goals in each of the two prior seasons, with a total of 34 in 131 Atletico games.
Eliminated from Europe already this season and languishing fifth, the Rojiblancos sit 14 points behind leaders Barcelona. Felix's temporary departure, along with that of Cunha to Wolves, will ease some financial pressure on the club, which could prove important if it fails to qualify for the Champions League next season.
Felix, 23, extended his contract by a year, until 2027, before joining Chelsea on loan, and could yet have a future at the Metropolitano. Simeone's deal with Atletico expires in June 2024 and if his long era at the club draws to a close, another coach might find a way to get more out of Felix.
If the forward can make an impact at Stamford Bridge, helping to drive Chelsea up the table, Atletico will be able to take a fresh look at their investment before deciding his long-term future. Its biggest bet may still pay off, but for now Felix finds himself moving from one underperforming club to another, hoping to shine amid the chaos.
© Agence France-Presse