João Félix’s Struggles at Stamford Bridge
January 12, 2023. One day after arriving on a six-month loan that would reportedly cost £16 million, João Félix made his debut for Chelsea, with Graham Potter including him in the starting line-up against Fulham. The Portuguese forward showed plenty of promise and looked the liveliest of Chelsea’s attackers until lunging into a reckless tackle on Kenny Tete. Félix was sent off after 59 minutes, and Fulham would claim a 2-1 victory over their West London neighbours.
Despite the expulsion, the 23-year-old Atlético Madrid loanee looked like the sort of player that Chelsea fans had not seen in a very long time. Félix was constantly dropping deep to receive the ball under pressure, utilising some of the attributes in his skillset in helping Chelsea beat the Fulham press and initiating some of the Blues’ best attacks. Equally mesmerising was his link-up play with Kai Havertz who just seemed to be on the same wavelength with the Portuguese on the night. Apart from the red card, it was an impressive debut for Félix and Chelsea fans couldn’t help but cry for more of their newly found Portuguese darling.
It took three games for Chelsea fans to set their sights on João Félix again following the straight red card he received against Fulham, and he instantly made another brilliant impression as he scored the opener in a 1-1 draw away at West Ham. However, since his second Chelsea appearance, the performances from the former Benfica star have gradually decayed, leading to many doubts over whether it would make sense to pursue a permanent deal following his costly loan spell.
Apart from his first two appearances, João Félix’s time at Chelsea has been characterized by goal droughts, missed chances, and several ‘what could have been’ moments. Indeed, his only other goal in a blue shirt would come on March 18, opening the scoring after 52 minutes as Chelsea fell to a 2-2 draw at home against Everton. That match would be followed up by a 2-0 home loss to Aston Villa, resulting in the dismissal of Graham Potter and the arrival of interim manager Frank Lampard.
For Félix, it’s just two goals and zero assists in 15 Chelsea appearances as the 23-year-old now looks lost in a sea of misfortune and mediocrity that has overwhelmed the Blues’ season, and his performance against Real Madrid in the recent UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie, which Chelsea lost 4-0 on aggregate, was just another episode in the tale of his underwhelming performances at Stamford Bridge.
Félix’s form notwithstanding, there have been reports suggesting that Chelsea will commit to signing the Portuguese forward on a permanent basis after the expiration of his loan deal this summer, which has evidently raised eyebrows amongst the Chelsea fanbase with many questioning the motive behind signing a player who has barely made a difference at the club since joining in January. Moreover, the player is one of Atleti’s biggest assets at the moment and as such, any deal to sign him permanently would likely cost Chelsea a fee in the region of €80-100 million.
Chelsea have shown in the last two transfer windows that they are more than capable of coughing up the cash with the club’s spending since the Todd Boehly takeover rising to around $600 million over two windows. If the Blues are not able to make Atlético Madrid renege on their asking price for Félix, their spending in the last year could still rise by a significant amount. But for what purpose?
That’s the question on the lips of many Chelsea fans, because apart from the fact that the player’s performances have so far left a lot more to be desired, Chelsea have reportedly agreed a deal for RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, with the Frenchman set to join this summer. Given this potentially awkward fit, it seems that any deal for Félix would be a luxury signing, the last thing this current Chelsea side needs.
Samuel Chukwueze: The Long-Awaited Arrival of Nigeria’s Latest Attacking Sensation
Concerning João Félix, it’s a plethora of unanswered questions. Could it be that he’s just lost form like any other player? Or has the current instability at the club taken its toll? Or is he just not good enough for the club? It was just four years ago that he broke onto the scene as a teenage footballing sensation in 2018/19, helping Benfica to win the Primera Liga that season and becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Europa League, firing in three goals in a 4-2 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarterfinals.
The then 19-year-old drew praise from both Benfica manager Bruno Lage, who predicted that he will be ‘a fantastic player’ when he gets ‘more consistent’ while opposing manager Adi Hütter referred to Félix as “a very intelligent player, who finishes play and creates.” His stock rapidly rose after his brilliant debut season, getting his first senior cap for Portugal, winning the UEFA Nations League, getting nominated for the Ballon d’Or and winning the Golden Boy award for the best young prospect in Europe.
It didn’t take long for Europe’s top clubs to cast their eyes on him, with Atlético Madrid paying a club-record €126 million for Félix in 2019. He was tasked with replacing Antoine Griezmann following the Frenchman’s move to Barcelona, a task that he has struggled to fulfill. Félix managed just nine goals and three assists in 36 appearances, but the following season, he would register 10 goals and six assists in 40 appearances as Atleti won their first league title in seven years.
He would follow that up with 10 goals and six assists in 35 appearances in 2021/22 — in total, he has registered 34 goals and 18 assists in 131 appearances across all competitions. Félix was named as Atleti’s Player of the Season, leading Atleti to a third-place finish in the league and grabbing a goal against Manchester United as the Rojiblancos progressed to the Champions League quarterfinals, where they would lose to Manchester City.
Joao Felix: The Season That Birthed His Reputation as One of Europe’s Biggest Talents
When he fell out of favor with Atleti manager Diego Simeone, it seemed to confirm all of our suspicions — his move to Atleti in 2019 was the wrong choice for him in his career. A creative, free-flowing player like Félix was never going to thrive in a compact, defensive set-up like Atleti’s in part due to his lack of work rate off the ball in stark contrast to Griezmann. A system that allows for more creative license and positional flexibility would have surely suited him better.
“[Félix] is a genius and a very humble person,” stated AS Roma sporting director and ex-Benfica director Tiago Pinto in an interview with The Telegraph. “He’s not a normal footballer. There is a lot of natural talent and a high confidence in himself. He makes everything seem very easy. He just needs the right context. He needs a coach and technical staff who like him and protect him. Sometimes these guys need someone to treat them a bit differently.”
It remains to be seen who Chelsea go with to replace Lampard, with Julian Nagelsmann and Mauricio Pochettino being linked with the position, among others. However, it is a near certainty that Félix will thrive in a more balanced, attack-minded set-up, something that has been sorely lacking at Chelsea. The Blues have not seen the best of Félix yet, but will that potential payoff outweigh his underwhelming form and convince Chelsea to cough up an astronomical transfer fee and wages?
By: Moses Onyilo Adikwu / @Moe_Adikwu
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images