Atletico Madrid opened this season's La Liga campaign with a home game against Getafe, a notoriously gritty team. Early in the second half, Joao Felix—who was making his competitive debut for Atletico—picked up the ball deep in his own half. He drove forward, brushing off tackles and nutmegging one player, before being pulled down in Getafe's box to win a penalty (which Alvaro Morata missed).
It was a breathtaking manoeuvre. Atletico won the match 1-0, and their next two games, to surge to the top of the league, comfortably clear of Barcelona and Real Madrid, who both had five points. Felix was in exuberant form, providing an assist against Leganes and scoring versus Eibar.
Coming off the back of his electrifying pre-season—in which he scored four goals and provided a hatful of assists, including a gala performance in a historic 7-3 demolition of Real Madrid in New Jersey in late July—the world looked a pleasing place for him. Since then, however, his form has tapered off. An ankle injury that kept him out for a month during the autumn also hampered his progress.
"The fact that one of the first things he did—that run against Getafe—was one of the best things he did tells its own story," says Euan McTear, author of Hijacking La Liga: How Atletico Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid's Duopoly on Spanish Football. "Some of his performances in pre-season were a lot better than the ones he's produced in the actual season, which says it all. You have to go quite far back to find some of his best moments. It's a worry."
There is a lot of expectation on Felix. He was signed from Benfica during the summer for a reported fee of €127 million, which makes him the most expensive player in Atletico's history—by far. Thomas Lemar is Atletico's next highest transfer fee, having joined the previous summer for a reported fee of €70 million.
"When Joao Felix came in he almost doubled the club's record transfer fee," says McTear. "It's massive pressure. I was shocked the club paid that much because I don't know how they could afford it, especially when they have to fill so many holes in the team. They've taken a massive gamble. You wonder if he comprehends how much they've put all their eggs in the Joao Felix basket."
That Felix was only 19 years old when he joined Atletico (he turned 20 in November) has taken little of the heat off him. McTear makes the point that Ousmane Dembele—who was 20 when he joined Barcelona in the summer of 2017 for a fee north of €100 million—was lucky that Philippe Coutinho joined the club later in his first season at Barca for a bigger transfer fee, which took some of the spotlight away from Dembele.
At Atletico, Felix is alone under the glare, with the hope that he will ignite a team that is struggling to score goals, having mustered only 22, for example, in the league so far (less than half the number Barcelona have scored).
"I think people are nervous about Felix because people are judging him on his price and not for his age. It was very clear from the beginning he is a player who will need time to adjust and develop," says Inako Diaz-Guerra, a journalist with El Mundo.
"Time will tell us. He is 20 years old. He has just arrived here. We still don't know how he will respond to the pressure. People from inside Atletico's dressing room say he will make good, but, of course, what else could they say? It's impossible to gauge the mentality of the player after only five months of the season.
"He has talent. That's noticeable. You can see it on the pitch when he gets the ball, but only talent is not enough. It's necessary to grow up, to learn—and this is what he has to do little by little—and only if he does [mature], will we know if he will become a great player or not. To say now if he has the personality to succeed or not, is like jumping in a swimming pool without being sure if it has water or not."
Felix's rawness is apparent. He lacks the guile to make a difference in parts of the pitch that hurt the opposition, notes Fran Guillen, a Madrid-based author and football journalist: "Right now his game is too irregular and immature. It must evolve. He must learn where he can—and should—hurt the opposition, and he needs to be more consistent.
"He still doesn't understand the game very well. He makes fantastic passes and takes off on extraordinary dribbles but almost never in areas that are really decisive. He must learn that quality. To make a difference, he has to apply his talent in the last third of the field, which is where top players really prove themselves. In addition to that, physically, he still has a lot of room for improvement. He has the physique of a teenager."
Diego Simeone has not been slow to play Felix. When he's fit, he plays. What is noticeable, though, is that Simeone regularly withdraws him from play. In Felix's 15 league games for Atletico this season, he has only finished two matches. Simeone has said he would like Felix to have more "gas" left in the tank for the end of games, when defenders tire and forwards can go in for the kill.
Atletico fans have taken to whistling Simeone when he substitutes Felix. They have yet to get on Felix's back. "Atletico's fans are still patient with him because he has exhibited some interesting flashes, but they are longing for him to appear more in games—and be more decisive," says Guillen. "If you're watching the current Atletico performances, the player who seems to have cost a lot of money is Angel Correa, not Joao Felix."
Correa, who Marca reported was nearly offloaded to AC Milan during the summer, has scored three goals and provided three assists in his last five games. Felix hasn't contributed towards a goal in those games.
It's difficult for attacking players to prosper in Simeone's defensive teams. Of those the club have signed during the eight years of Simeone's reign, over a dozen have failed to prosper, including Jackson Martinez, Lemar and Kevin Gameiro. Antoine Griezmann has been one of the notable exceptions.
"Simeone's Atletico is very strict in one sense," says Diaz-Guerra. "If you can adapt yourself to what they want, though, you will grow up, as was the case with Griezmann. When he arrived, basically until Christmas, he wasn't even a starter a lot of times. He understood what they wanted from him, and he grew from being a player on the wing, an aesthete, a player who scored 10 goals per season, into a player that could play all over the pitch and one that scored 30 goals per season. That development was thanks to Atleti.
"It's not the most comfortable team to arrive at, but if you have the proper head for the task, it's definitely the team where you will grow the most because they are the team that will demand the most things from you that you don't naturally do. Does 'Cholo' [Simeone] demand a lot of work? Of course he does. It's only if you're Messi, you don't have to run. All the big players have to work.
"People always say, 'Manchester City plays really attractive football, so for Felix it would be a better fit. He'd be more comfortable there.' Well, maybe he goes to Manchester City and what would happens is that he wouldn't play, because they have 26 players like him. I think he chose a team where he knew that once Griezmann left, it would be a place for a very important role with nobody to fill it—that he could fill.
"Of course, Atleti demands skill in tactics and defence that the other big teams won't demand. Is it the best club or not for him? Well, that will depend on his mentality. For Griezmann, it was ideal. For other players like Yannick Carrasco, it wasn't. It will depend on whether Felix buys into Simeone's philosophy."
At the moment, the jury is out. In Sunday's Spanish Super Cup final, which Atletico lost on penalties to Real Madrid after drawing 0-0, it was a familiar story. Felix showed flashes but failed to provide the key to unlock a deadlocked game and was substituted in extra time. McTear urges caution, citing the fact that Felix has arrived during a year of transition at Atletico, with the spine of the team having had to be rebuilt following the departures of stalwarts including Griezmann and Diego Godin.
"I think he has the makings of a 'crack' [a star player], but right now he is far from being a player worth €120 million," adds Guillen. "Griezmann's early days with Simeone were also complicated, but Antoine ended up growing a lot under Cholo, and he became a star. So it's advisable to be patient and wait for Joao Felix to find his groove."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz