A marriage made in heaven or an inconvenient affair?
Chelsea’s signing Joao Felix could be the dose of redemption both sides are seeking.
Looking back on the 2018/19 season, Chelsea newcomer Joao Felix would take his first steps at senior level to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional footballer and find stardom. The youngster, then at Benfica, made his senior arc against Boavista and didn’t look back.
Act 1: The Lost Child
A return of 15 goals and nine assists in 26 league games, also becoming the youngest goalscorer in the Lisbon derby. He scored his first continental hat-trick with a brilliant performance in the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals against Eintracht Frankfurt despite the elimination of the Portuguese giants.
One team that went all the way into the competition this season was Chelsea, who beat Arsenal to lift the trophy in Baku. The Blues also reached the final of the Carabao Cup and finished a respectable third in the Premier League.
For someone looking inside, both Chelsea and Felix appeared to be on the way up. Now, just four years later, one could prove the other’s salvation or prove yet another misstep in such a promising future.
Act 2: The Rise and Fall of a Star
Benfica could only take Felix with them so far, a move to a bigger club was only a matter of time. It came as a surprise that he decided to join Atletico Madrid – an impressive side that placed more emphasis on defense than attack.
To his credit, the Portugal international found success but never saw his career take off as expected. A return of 34 goals and 18 assists in 131 appearances is not a bad record. But in terms of consistency and developing his game, Diego Simeone couldn’t get the best out of Felix.
After the pecking order fell, the January 2023 transfer window was an attempt at redemption. Chelsea, a team in a similar boat, offer him just that. Still adjusting to the post-Roman Abramovich era, the Blues are struggling both on and off the field as they try to rebuild their credentials as top-four regulars .
Graham Potter’s side lack intensity and identity, which was unexpected prior to the start of the current season. In many ways, the club’s search for an identity mirrors that of Felix looking to rebuild his image.
No wonder then that he was loaned out to Stamford Bridge for a move. The six-month loan allows him to break away from Simeone’s rigid build and express himself in Potter’s attacking tactics. The Blues are looking for a difference maker upfront, something Felix could offer.
Act 3: Redemption?
The 23-year-old still has a lot of his career ahead of him and can still fulfill his potential. Stamford Bridge needs a hero, a formative player who can help the team transition into a new era. Felix can and could very well be the “franchise player” Todd Boehly needs.
Unlike at Atletico Madrid where he warmed the bench, Felix was thrown into the starting XI against Fulham just hours after joining Chelsea, a sign of confidence in his abilities or a sign of desperation – the choice is yours!
Either way, the attacker impressed, at least initially. He was Chelsea’s standout player against the Cottagers, wreaking havoc on opposition defenses with his moves and tricks. He wasn’t lacking in confidence and looked like the player of yore, brave and willing to take risks.
Joao Felix gets a red card on his Premier League debut 😳 pic.twitter.com/EhulpSGFpz
— GOAL (@goal) January 12, 2023
But then you can take the player out of Simeone’s system, but not the system out of the player. A duel that would have brought him cheers at the Civitas Metropolitano brought him nothing but mockery at Craven Cottage. Felix’s Chelsea debut lasted just 58 minutes before receiving his marching orders.
In many ways, the performance mirrored Felix’s career – a good start followed by an overzealous decision that brought her to a halt. He will now spend the next three games on the sidelines. All hope is not lost, however, as in the short time on the field at Craven Cottage he showed exactly what Chelsea were looking for – inspiration and struggle.
In a team lacking in ideas and imagination, Felix stood out and seemed the one best placed to make the difference. As expected after his graduation, Chelsea declined and didn’t show the same panache or attacking impulse.
His time off could prove to be a godsend for both sides. Not only will it give Potter more time to familiarize his new signing with the system, but it will also help Felix consider what to expect from his stint at Stamford Bridge.
Act 4: Rebuilding
His incident-packed debut is sure to get him under the media scanner. While the focus on his flaws may not be as sharp as Darwin Nunez’s, the English media is unlikely to give anyone who is not from the region carte blanche. How he handles it could determine his stay in the country.
With no option to make the deal permanent, Chelsea will be desperate to squeeze every drop of football out of the 23-year-old. This benefits the Portugal international as he is guaranteed more or less playing time whenever he is available.
The Blues need someone who can save their season. And the money thrown at Atletico Madrid in January shows they believe Felix can be that man. Having played with one arm tied behind his back for much of Spain, the shackles are untied and the onus is on the player to show the trust placed in him.
Felix will do well to treat his time as an audition of sorts, reminding Europe’s big boys that his talents are not irreplaceable. Chelsea will also benefit should he be in full swing, potentially stabilizing the club’s performances and proving that there is indeed some logic to Boehly’s recovery.
The Blues have proven to be a cesspool of attackers of late. Players like Fernando Torres, Andriy Shevchenko, Alexandre Pato, Alvaro Morata, Radamel Falcao, Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner all saw their legacy smashed in the English capital. Kai Havertz is still at the club. But to call his transfer a success would be a serious overstatement.
With Christopher Nkunku expected to arrive in the summer, Felix will do well to allay worries about the strikers’ curse. With the Frenchman’s arrival imminent, Chelsea have no reason to keep Felix on a permanent basis. It offers a convenient arrangement that allows both player and club to focus on short-term goals rather than building a long-term vision.
While Chelsea are rebuilding, they have yet to lay a solid foundation to do so. The arrival of Felix reflects this to some extent and can be seen as a short-term fix. However, there is no zero-sum game here, because either both sides benefit from the partnership or it falls in their faces.
Act 5: Rebirth
Whether it was a vote of confidence or an act of desperation, Graham Potter was ready to play Joao Felix from the start. Whether the feeling will linger when he returns to action after serving his suspension remains to be seen. A return to Atletico Madrid will do him little good as long as Simeone is in charge. Finally, the Argentine is unlikely to build the team around Felix’s attacking strengths.
Potter, on the other hand, is more aggressive. And the difference in attitude was evident in the way Felix took to the field for Chelsea. He once again looked like a player enjoying his game and doing what he does best – trying to hit the ball into the net. For 57 minutes against Fulham there was screaming for a player to rediscover his own.
There is a lot going on for both parties in this type of arrangement. Finally, Todd Boehly has shown that he’s not averse to throwing money at a problem until it goes away. Should Felix make a difference, he could end up calling Stamford Bridge home for years to come.