The Joao Felix enigma is unlikely to be resolved at Chelsea or indeed anywhere yet

Joao Felix on his CHelsea debut Credit: Alamy
Joao Felix on his CHelsea debut Credit: Alamy

Atletico Madrid undoubtedly overpaid for Joao Felix but that is not his fault, though getting sent off on his Chelsea debut is…

 

Who’s this then?
João Félix Sequeira is a 23-year-old, 5’11” forward who was born in Viseu in Portugal and has just joined Chelsea on loan from Atletico Madrid.

A talent from an early age, he joined Porto’s youth ranks aged just eight and even moved away from home when he was 12 to be near the club training ground. That doesn’t sound right. You’d hope no-one is allowed to move away from home at just 12 anymore. Even though this was only 11 years ago, you’d hope there is now more awareness in football of how vulnerable a child is in that situation. Despite this move, he was let go by the club a couple of years later and he joined Benfica, now 15.

At the time, he was the youngest player to play for Benfica B. After 30 appearances he moved up to the first team in 2018. The 2018/19 season transformed him from promising youngster to in-demand star. His first goal was in the Lisbon derby, he was the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Europa League, and he scored 20 goals in 43 appearances, helping Benfica to win the league. He also made his debut for the Portugal national team, helping them to win the Nations League.

That season across all of Europe’s biggest leagues, he ranked second among teenagers for goals and assists, behind Kai Havertz and Jadon Sancho respectively. It was a stellar campaign for him and being so young, he attracted a lot of attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Even so it shocked most observers when Atletico Madrid gave Beneficia 126 million Euros for the lad’s service. It was the most wonga Benfica had ever got for a player and the most Atletico had ever paid.

That is a lot of pressure to put on a young lad’s shoulders. In 2020/21 they won La Liga, in 2021/22 he won Atlético Madrid Player of the Year but ended it injured. All seemed well but there was trouble in paradise because The Man Who Only Wears Black seemed to take against him. Last season he only scored eight in the league and made four assists but he was playing well, though suffering from aggressive defender attention.

Even though this season he’d scored four and made three in 14 appearances, by December the club was saying he was a gamble that hadn’t really paid off. Simeone clearly doesn’t like him. And Felix probably doesn’t want to play in a team that is so narrow and defensive.

So with Manchester United and Arsenal sniffing around the Felix kennel, Chelsea snaffled him for six months, coughing out an 11 million Euro fee to do so. It is a gamble but one they can easily afford.

 

Why the love?
He still looks very young, younger than 23. For a player with such a short career so far, it is probably not unfair to say he’s still a case of what might be. As I write this I’m watching him play for Chelsea against Fulham. He’s played on the right and through the middle and looks very lively, has some lovely touches and finds good positions. It may be that he will enjoy playing without the Simeone misery yoke around his neck and will enjoy playing without the knowledge of him costing 126 million Euros impressing itself on everyone’s synapses.

However, as soon as I wrote that, he got sent off for a reckless tackle that wasn’t malicious, but was probably a result of over-eagerness to impress on his debut. He doesn’t strike me as the reincarnation of Chopper Harris, who routinely made tackles like that and far, far worse..

So he’s out for three games now. Oops. He seems to have been immediately cursed with Chelsea’s current ‘everything that can go wrong is going wrong’ hex.

There is no doubt he is a very good footballer, albeit one who has suffered more than most from being booted up into the air in La Liga, but when someone pays such big money for you a lot is expected and what he has delivered isn’t commensurate with that fee, though that is hardly the lad’s fault. He clearly didn’t like his manager and his manager didn’t like him. That’s not a recipe for harmony.

The fact that his numbers, while being decent, simply didn’t justify the gargantuan fee is neither man’s fault. The blame for that can be laid at the club and Jorge Mendes, who, somewhat inevitably, is Felix’s agent.

As it stands he’s made 219 appearances, scored 68 times, made 35 assists and all those from playing centre forward, left winger, right winger, second striker and attacking midfield. That’s a £40million player, not over 100.

But the mistake has been made, no-one is happy about it anymore and something must be done to resolve it. So a loan to Chelsea suits everyone before a longer-term solution can be sought and agreed. Whether Chelsea are “one of the biggest clubs in the world” as the lad said on arrival, is open to debate, but when he comes back from suspension, if he can make a big impact, maybe west London will be a good home for him.

Money comes before everything and dictates everything in the modern game at this level. When he joined the Madrid club he’d only played 26 top-flight games. Paying so much was always a gamble and no-one can say it paid off. It’s been a weird four years really. No-one doubts the player’s talent, but while there have been some really good performances, he simply didn’t really make an impact. Fans don’t seem to have turned against him as winning Player Of The Year last season shows. So it’s a very peculiar situation all round.

 

Three great moments

Interestingly, there is no definitive Joao type of goal…

There’s no doubt he has a lovely touch on the ball…

Yeah, don’t do that again Joao…

 

Future days?
His teammates seemed to be frustrated with him in Madrid. Saul and Jan Oblak were caught on camera saying “When he wants to, he can change the game, man.” The first half of that sentence is doing all the heavy lifting. The feeling that he doesn’t apply himself for 90 minutes of every game is obvious.

So the player needs to do some work on himself, but all of this is interrelated to coaching and club. Graham Potter is famous for his man-management skills, or he was at Brighton, anyway. Whether those skills are as effective with the Chelsea ego is another issue yet to be resolved. Will he even have the time to coach Felix into being a better player when he’s surely preoccupied with trying to work out what on earth he can do to stop the Blues downward slide?

As ever with Joao Felix there are a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of potential, some end product but not enough. The enigma may not be resolved at Chelsea and will only grow as he misses the next three games.

Personally, I suspect he’s one of those players who will come really good in his late 20s when he’s matured and has a better sense of himself and where he belongs. Where he will be by then is anyone’s guess, but how he develops in the next five months will certainly be very interesting and may reveal as much about Potter as it does about Felix.

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