Move over Ronaldo, Joao Felix is here

FBL-ICC-2019-MADRID-JUVENTUS Atletico Madrid's forward Joao Felix (R) vies with Juventus' midfielder Adrien Rabiot during the International Champions Cup football match between Atletico Madrid v Juventus | AFP

As of today, world football’s latest sensation, Joao Felix, has played just five games for his new club, Atletico Madrid. All of them were pre-season friendlies. Yet, he already possesses a highlights reel of performances that would take about a year for most players to string together. The Portuguese teenager has already notched up three goals, two of which came against Real Madrid and Juventus.

Such has been the impact of Atletico’s record signing. The attacker was bought by the team in the Spanish capital for a reported fee of €126 million from Portuguese side Benfica. It made him the fourth most expensive footballer in the world, after Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. All of 19, he seems to carry the weight of his enormous transfer fee with relative ease.

Felix arrives at Atletico at a transition period for the squad. Out went young Rodri and the old guard of Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, Diego Godin, Juanfran and Felipe Luis. In came the likes of Felix, Kieran Trippier and Marcos Llorente. The team now bears a very different look and that is coach Diego Simeone’s biggest challenge.

Questions have been raised whether this new-look team can continue the good work done by Simeone. The old guard that departed were bred and had excelled in the Argentine gaffer’s famous Cholismo brand of football. Brute physicality, incredible pressing and work rate, and an overemphasis on defending and counter attacking have defined a generation of players that often successfully countered the slick movements and passing of rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. And Felix, for one, just doesn’t fit the bill.

He comes as a replacement for Antoine Griezmann, who forced his way out to join Barcelona. Big shoes to fill, because Griezmann, a standout star at the World Cup last year, was arguably Atletico’s best player, taking them to two Champions League finals and winning the league back in 2014 against all odds.

Felix plays the same second striker role and has the same flair while attacking, albeit his defensive contribution is negligible compared to that of the Frenchman. That would seem like Simeone’s biggest worry. But as Felix has shown in the pre-season games, he makes up for that with his brilliance in attack. It is almost as if the side is being remodeled to slot him in, and that seems to be working.

Felix is a player who still relies heavily on his teammates to provide him the ball. Once it reaches him, he works his magic. His touches are silky and he has the ability to link up with teammates up front very well. That is where his incredible vision comes into play, with defence-cutting passes and sneaking up behind defenders to receive the ball and finish.

He started out as an attacking midfielder years before and was slowly moved to the second-striker role, to get the best out of both, his scoring and creative abilities. Part of Porto’s youth academy since he was eight, Felix made the move to Benfica three years ago. He graduated to the first team last year amidst similar hype and delivered. In the 2018-19 season, he scored 20 goals in 43 games and became the first teenager to score a hat-trick in the UEFA Europa League.

He also made his international debut for Portugal this year, in the semifinal of the Nations League during the summer. It was an uneventful debut for him, as the Swiss defence kept him at bay. But it was the introduction of someone seen as the heir to one of the best players in history, Cristiano Ronaldo. Very different kind of player, but one that can make a similar impact. Alongside the likes of Bernado Silva and Joao Cancelo, Felix is part of a young crop of Portuguese football’s future.

There is an irony in Atletico’s purchase of Felix, though. For, here is a club that has always represented the working-class folk of Madrid—the poor cousin of the mighty Real Madrid—and it signs a player for a price more than Real have ever spent on a single player. Atletico’s history involves players who were known to be warriors on the field, rather than wily magicians, and that was how its fans identified with them. They were usually academy graduates or low-key signings whose stock rose drastically.

In the last few years, there has been a gradual departure from that philosophy, thanks to the kind of money that flows into the sport and the lofty ambitions of the fans. But Felix’s signing could signal a proper evolution to a different kind of game. He is nothing like the players Atletico fans have grown attached to, but he is their future, and one they will grow to love. With the new La Liga season around the corner, there is an eagerness to see what Joao Felix and this new team will bring.