Joao Felix thriving once again at Atletico after 2020-21 false dawn

By Sports Desk October 30, 2021

When Joao Felix signed for Atletico Madrid in 2019, it's fair to say there were plenty who doubted it would be a happy marriage.

Atletico shelled out €126million on the Portuguese talent who had taken the Primeira Liga by storm in his first season, scoring 15 times despite not even being in the Benfica first team when the campaign had begun.

But how was this technical virtuoso going to fit into an Atletico side characterised by its work rate? How would he adapt to the demanding principles implemented by Diego Simeone?

Maverick talents known more for their technical attributes than anything else had often been seen as Simeone's blind spot, hence some trepidation about whether he was the right man to nurture Joao Felix.

The Portugal international's Atletico career has been a slow-burner, but once again there are signs he is beginning to find himself.

Stuck in limbo

Joao Felix had to miss the start of this season through injury, which was obviously not ideal, particularly given how 2020-21 ultimately turned out for him after a promising start.

For a period last season, there were real signs that he was finding his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisaged, his role in the first half of 2020-21 – being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left – saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Lionel Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-the-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But he didn't manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

A potential explanation for Joao Felix's disappointing form overall for Atletico was the lack of creativity in central areas behind him. While some might suggest Marcos Llorente's 11 assists in 2020-21 disproves that idea, the former Real Madrid man over-performed his expected assists (xA) by 5.6 – a figure unmatched across LaLiga, suggesting such productivity was not sustainable – while he also did a lot of his best work towards the right.

There had undoubtedly been a major difference between how Joao Felix was used during his first two seasons at Atletico compared to his time with Benfica, where he was seen as more of a genuine striker.

He averaged 2.5 shots per game in 2018-19 with Benfica, and although there wasn't a massive drop-off in his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano (2.4), his expected goals per shot slumped from 0.15 to 0.12. While that may not sound like a lot, it shows a clear indication that the quality of his chances decreased and therefore suggests his similar shot frequency was a result of poor decision-making.

 

His xG per shot improved back up to 0.14 last term, though he was averaging just 1.26 shots each game, half as frequent as at Benfica.

The fact his average number of touches in the box fell from 4.9 per appearance in 2018-19 to 2.7 the following season and then 2.0 last term further highlighted the different role he was adapting to and went some way to explaining why he was having fewer shots.

Certain transfer window additions – especially Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha – had some fans concerned for Joao Felix, given they were likely to be in direct competition with him for places.

Some felt his future was in a more deep-lying role as part of the central midfield trio, but recently he has excelled in a similar playmaking function but further up the pitch. Suddenly it has him looking like the Joao Felix we all knew was in there somewhere.

Rising to the challenge

Following an uncharacteristic recruitment drive for technical players in the most recent transfer window, a key buzzword around Atletico was 'balance'. Preserving balance in the team was going to be a major focus for Simeone as he looked to truly maximise what is arguably the most talented squad he's had as a coach.

At the moment, it appears to be working well, and Joao Felix seems to be nicely suited to the set-up that's being deployed.

Simeone is favouring the use of a front three that is spearheaded by Suarez, with Joao Felix to the left and Griezmann towards the right.

The roles of Joao Felix and Griezmann allow them a certain flexibility. They can go down the outside, but with the use of wing-backs there's not a necessity, therefore Atletico can really overload teams in the final third when the likes of Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco are overlapping out wide.

This appears to suit Joao Felix in particular, and he has thrived in an advanced playmaker role against Real Sociedad and Levante over the past week.

 

Now, it's worth noting that Joao Felix was at fault for La Real's first goal in last weekend's 2-2 draw, but he played a similarly important role in ensuring Atletico fought back, his neat and intricate play in possession a real asset.

He was involved in 41 open-play passing sequences in that match, second only to Koke among Atletico midfielders and forwards. Given it's a metric that tends to be dominated by defenders and central midfielders, Joao Felix's high involvement here speaks to his significant influence.

He was then involved in 44 such sequences against Levante – again, Koke was the only midfielder or forward to be more influential in Atletico's build-up play than Joao Felix.

But there has been more substance to his performances than just build-up involvement – he seems to be relishing the attacking responsibility he has, and there's a certain maturity to be gleaned from that.

For example, it would have been quite easy for Joao Felix to go back inside his shell after coughing up possession in the lead-up to La Real's first goal, but he continued to demand the ball and drive at the defence.

His 22 ball carries was four more than any other midfielder or forward in that game, and there was such positivity in his movement in possession – he progressed 137.5 metres upfield with the ball, at least 45.8m more than any other non-defender on the pitch.

 

These often brought him inside as well as down the wing, from where he caused numerous problems and even set up Suarez's first goal with a gorgeous cross.

Joao Felix's output was then almost identical against Levante, with his carry progress increasing to 140.6m upfield, which was again a match-high among non-defenders, while his 21 overall carries was second only to Koke's 27 in that same group of players.

There are undoubtedly those who will remain unconvinced given he has had only one goal involvement (that assist against La Real) in five league games this season, so why are these figures important?

Well, Joao Felix's prominence in Atletico's build-up shows the influence he's beginning to exert. That, coupled with the positive nature – and frequency – of his ball carries, suggests he's finally found his niche in this team. He's injecting direction and purpose to their attacks.

Obviously, in an ideal world he will manage to add plenty of goals and assists as well in the long run, but for the moment the important thing for Joao Felix is that he finds continuity and consistency.

He looked to have been on the right path this time last year before a complicated second half to 2020-21 – hopefully for his sake this isn't another false dawn.

Related items

  • Shastri urges BCCI to give pace sensation Malik central contract 'straightaway' Shastri urges BCCI to give pace sensation Malik central contract 'straightaway'

    Ravi Shastri has urged the BCCI to give Umran Malik a central contract with India "straightaway" and says the paceman will be a "handful" in red-ball cricket.

    Malik has taken the 2022 Indian Premier League by storm, claiming 21 wickets at an average of 20 for Sunrisers Hyderabad.

    The 22-year-old clocked the fastest ball in this year's tournament with a delivery that registered 156.9 kilometres per hour on the speed gun against Delhi Capitals this month.

    Malik rattled India captain Rohit Sharma on the helmet and took 3-23 to make another huge statement in Sunrisers' win over Mumbai Indians on Tuesday.

    He became the youngest Indian to take 20 wickets in an IPL season with his latest exhibition of explosive pace bowling.

    Former India head coach Shastri wants to see the rapid Malik in Rohit's pace attack on the international stage in the near future.

    "Central contract straightaway," Shastri said on ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time Out.

    "And keep him in the mix, don't let him float around. Keep him in the mix with the main players and then he learns seeing (and) being around with the [Mohammed] Shamis and the [Jasprit] Bumrahs, and see the way they train, see the way they manage their workload.

    "Of course, there'll be the team management there, support staff, that'll help him do that, but don't let him stray at the moment. Get him into the mix, and keep him there and groom him."

    Shastri says the quick will be even more potent when he learns to bowl with more control.

    He said: "He'll get better and better. You see his bowling once he takes a wicket. Look at the lines he starts bowling as opposed to when he has not got a wicket – that's when he is trying everything, his lines are all over the place.

    "You don't want him to cut down on pace. The last thing you would tell him looking for control, cut down on pace. What you want him to do is get his lines right: if he can bowl that stump line, attack the stumps on a constant basis, varying his lengths, he will trouble [batters].

    "If he gets a wicket and new guy comes in, he can really rattle him because he has got the pace, he can keep the bloke on his toes, but it's that line - if he gets into that channel, without cutting his pace it will make a huge difference."

    Shastri says Malik can provide a new dimension to the India Test attack.

    "I promise you, this guy is going to be a handful in red-ball cricket. Handful, really. If he is part of an Indian pace battery that has Bumrah, Shami, you add this bloke in, a fourth guy, it's going to be a serious attack," he added.

  • Tuchel confirms Christensen opted out of FA Cup final for 'private' reasons Tuchel confirms Christensen opted out of FA Cup final for 'private' reasons

    Thomas Tuchel has no idea if Andreas Christensen will play for Chelsea again after the defender ruled himself out of the FA Cup final for "private" reasons.

    Christensen's contract expires at the end of the month and Barcelona are the favourites to sign him on a free transfer.

    The Denmark international started in the 3-0 Premier League win at Leeds United, but was not in the squad for a defeat to Liverpool on penalties on the FA Cup final at Wembley last Saturday.

    Blues boss Tuchel on Wednesday confirmed the centre-back told him he was unavailable on the morning of the game.

    Tuchel is unsure if Christensen will play in the London club's two remaining Premier League games against Leicester City on Thursday and Watford three days later, as they strive to secure third place. 

    Asked if Christensen will return, the German said in a press conference: "Not sure yet if he's involved tomorrow and at the weekend.

    "Andreas came on the morning of the match and told me he was not ready to play.

    "He had his reasons, they stay private and confidential, but it was not the first time as you can see over the last weeks we had some of the same situations why he did not play so regularly.

    "We thought that we are in a good progression and good development because he played very strong in the match before the final against Leeds but the conversation took place and we have to respect it and we of course respected it and he has our support.

    "It is unlikely for the weekend, it was on very short notice before the cup final and other matches in the weeks before. So no chance I have any prediction for tomorrow and the weekend."

    Timo Werner will miss the clash with Leicester due to a thigh injury, while Kai Havertz also has a thigh problem and will be monitored ahead of the game.

  • What Luka can learn from LeBron, Harden and Warriors' other superstar playoff foes What Luka can learn from LeBron, Harden and Warriors' other superstar playoff foes

    Michael Jordan has company at last.

    The Chicago Bulls legend was for a long time the only player to average more than 30 points per game in the NBA playoffs, yet Luka Doncic is now writing his own name into the history books in Dallas.

    The Mavericks superstar has a long way to go before he can come anywhere close to matching Jordan's achievements, but he has been spectacular in scoring 32.7 points per game through his first four postseason series.

    Not only is Jordan (33.4 points per game) the sole player to top Doncic's mark across a playoff career, he alone since 1963-64 joins the former EuroLeague sensation in scoring more than 750 points over his first 23 postseason games (823 for Jordan, 751 for Doncic).

    These look to be early steps in a truly great NBA career for Doncic, and he could yet end this season as a champion.

    The Slovenian was outgunned taking on the Los Angeles Clippers on his own in the first round in consecutive years, but the Mavericks made bold moves this year – most notably appointing Jason Kidd and trading away Kristaps Porzingis – and are now in the Western Conference Finals.

    Although Doncic averaged 32.6 points as the Mavericks beat the Phoenix Suns in the second round, he crucially had help, now surrounded with defense and shooting.

    Dallas held the Suns to their three lowest points totals of the season (94 in Game 3, 90 in Game 7, 86 in Game 6), while Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie became the first team-mates to each score 30 points in a Game 7 since Los Angeles Lakers greats Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal against the Sacramento Kings in 2002.

    As the tournament heats up, Doncic will need all the assistance he can get – but any Mavericks title run surely depends on their main man being the best player in every series.

    That becomes a little tougher when Dallas are faced next with playoff veterans the Golden State Warriors.

    This is the 10th year of the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors, in which time they have been to five NBA Finals, won three championships and seen off a whole host of superstars.

    There are plenty of examples for Doncic to learn from then as he prepares to take on the greatest team of the past decade.

    LeBron James (33.0 points per game, 7-15 record)

    Ja Morant, who scored 35 points against Golden State in last year's play-in tournament, averaged 38.3 points across three games in the 2022 second round until a knee injury ended his series and, ultimately, the Memphis Grizzlies' season. That is the highest mark posted against the Warriors in the past 10 years, albeit with a limited sample size.

    Among those to play 10 or more games, James (33.0 points per game) leads the way. Equally as impressive, the four-time MVP has the most total playoff points versus the Warriors since 2012 (727) – despite spending the bulk of his career in the Eastern Conference.

     

    James did score 22 in a Lakers play-in win over the Warriors in 2021, but all of their 22 postseason encounters have come across four Finals series. Unfortunately, while James has excelled, his teams have not fared quite so well.

    Prior to Morant's explosion, James accounted for three of the four highest series averages against the Warriors over this period – 35.8 in 2015, 34.0 in 2018 and 33.6 in 2017 – but the Cleveland Cavaliers lost on each occasion. Their one Finals win came in 2016, when James scored 29.7 points per game.

    James had a little more help in 2016 – we'll come on to that – and the Cavaliers' various failures perhaps best illustrate the folly of Doncic attempting to take on a super-team alone.

    The 51 points James scored in Game 1 in 2018 were the most against the Warriors in a single playoff game in the past 10 years, but he was let down by his team-mates – we're looking at you, J.R. Smith – and Cleveland not only lost that series opener but were then swept.

    James Harden (29.8 points per game, 7-16 record)

    Harden's playoff career is best known for his repeated failures to get the better of the Warriors, losing all of his four series against Golden State while on the Houston Rockets, yet only James has scored more points in such matchups since 2012 (685).

    Counted among Harden's 23 postseason games against the Warriors in the past 10 years – only Iman Shumpert (24) has played more – are three 41-plus-point performances. James alone can top that (five games).

    However, Harden has also failed to reach 20 points on five occasions, twice shooting worse than 20 per cent from the field in 2015. Consistency is the key at this time of year, and Harden has not had that.

    The Rockets blew their biggest opportunity to make a first Finals since 1995 in 2018, when they led the Warriors 3-2 in the Conference Finals before Chris Paul went down injured. Houston lost Game 6 and Game 7, collapsing dramatically in the first of the two defeats as Harden did not contribute a single fourth-quarter point.

    Doncic, unsurprisingly, has never shot worse than 20 per cent in the playoffs, while his best shooting performance (63.2 per cent) came in Game 7 against the Suns and his career-high points total came in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers (46).

    Kyrie Irving (27.7 points per game, 5-8 record)

    Given Irving was the Cavaliers' second man behind James, it is difficult to draw a direct comparison with Doncic. But the point guard's performances show the sort of levels Dinwiddie or Jalen Brunson may have to reach to beat the Warriors if they are at the top of their game.

    Irving's 2015 Finals debut ended in Game 1 when he sustained a fractured kneecap, but he returned in 2016 and played a huge role in the Cavaliers' historic win.

    Cleveland were trailing 3-1 heading into Game 5 – a deficit that had never previously been overturned – only for Irving and James each to score 41 points, becoming the first team-mates to both top 40 in a Finals game. Irving shot 70.8 per cent from the field.

    As the Cavaliers recovered to win 4-3, with Irving shooting a decisive three late in Game 7, his usage rate was a lofty 30.7 per cent for the series, taking responsibility off James' shoulders. Brunson is the Mavericks' second man, although his usage rate of 29.7 per cent was boosted a little by playing three games without the ball-dominant Doncic.

    Damian Lillard (27.6 points per game, 1-12 record)

    If nothing else, Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers provide an example of how not to play the Warriors. Only former Blazers team-mate Rodney Hood (0-12) has a worse record in playoff games against Golden State in the past 10 years.

    A 43.7 per cent career shooter, Lillard has averaged 38.7 per cent from the field against the Warriors in the postseason. Sure, he has scored 27.6 points, but it has taken him 22.1 field goal attempts per game.

    When Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are on the other side of the floor, you cannot afford to be so inefficient. Lillard's sole victory in 2016 came courtesy of his one 40-point performance – while Curry was out injured.

    Only Allen Iverson (26.5) and Jordan (25.1) have attempted more field goals per playoff game than Doncic (24.3), so there is definitely scope for the Warriors to profit if he cools off – not that there has been a great deal of evidence to suggest that is likely.

    Kawhi Leonard (21.9 points per game, 8-5 record)

    The man who has occupied Doncic's playoff nightmares in the previous two seasons surely provides the blueprint for how to enjoy postseason success against the Warriors.

    Leonard has played on two of the four teams to eliminate Golden State from the playoffs in the past 10 years; he has not lost a series to the Warriors – missing the entirety of their 4-1 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs in 2018 – and boasts the best winning percentage of any player to face Steve Kerr's winning machine on more than 10 occasions over this period.

    The 2019 Finals showed the sort of standard that has been required to get the better of the Warriors in the past decade, with Leonard dominant as the outstanding player on the Toronto Raptors. He led the Raptors in points (171), rebounds (59) and steals (12) versus the Warriors, ranking second in assists (25) and blocks (seven).

     

    Doncic made strides on defense over the course of the Suns series, but whether he is capable of such an all-round display is very much up for debate.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.