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How will Joao Felix fit in at Atletico Madrid?

Joao Felix captured the imagination of those who watched him turn out for Benfica last season
Joao Felix captured the imagination of those who watched him turn out for Benfica last season
ANALYST
Modified 30 Jul 2019, 15:17 IST
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You should know two things about Joao Felix - he's a magnificent runner with the ball, and he's great at finding and creating space. He did both of those things really well for Benfica last season. Of course, he's got good vision and can play good passes, even in tight spaces, which makes him particularly adept at quick link-up play and finding releasing players into space with a measured through ball. We know this from only from the little more than half a season that we've seen him playing in the Portuguese top flight for Benfica at the ripe old age of 19.

Where do you play such a player? Benfica used him as a support striker in a 4-4-1-1 (or 4-2-3-1 variation) to quite the spectacular effect last season. His move to Atletico Madrid suddenly now poses the question, where will he play in Simeone's well-drilled and known 4-4-2? Could Simeone tweak this 4-4-2 to make it a 4-4-1-1 that would see Felix slot into the same role he played for Benfica? We'll explore the possibility, but the answer is both yes and no.

What was Joao Felix's role for Benfica?

The 19-year-old was called up the first team at the start of the 2018/19 season for his notable performances at junior levels. He even played cameo roles in a packed Benfica attack and impressed when he made appearances. He was largely deployed on the wing and picked up a couple of goals in his initial run of substitute appearances as well. An injury at the wrong time meant that he missed out on a couple of games, but perhaps crucially, by the time he recovered, he was returning to a team that was settled.

It was only in January 2019 that Felix started regularly starting games, this time, in the support striker position where he flourished. His regular inclusion in the squad was in part a result of Jonas' suspension and following injury, but the youngster grabbed the chance and didn't look back.

Jonas wasn't necessarily the most dynamic player in this role but he linked up play well and delivered in terms of goals. Felix brought his flair to the position, taking on players and beating them, finding team-mates in space and making runs into space to receive the ball. He would go on to finish the season with 20 goals and 11 assists in 2,866 minutes of play. Technically he made 43 appearances but the numbers indicate that he spent the equivalent of close to 32 full 90-minute games on the pitch. Just under one goal contribution every 90 minutes.

How do Atletico Madrid attack?

Funnily enough, to understand this, we should start with how they defend. The popularity of high-pressing sides like Klopp's Liverpool or the familiarity of the counter-press Guardiola's sides employ renders them easily recognisable. It also has the roll-on effect that teams that don't press in these familiar patterns often don't appear to press at all.

This Atletico side are often painted as a side that sits back and waits for the opponent to make an error and then break, which is only a half-truth. They create a disciplined block of players centrally forcing their opponents to the flanks and then employ a press in areas along the wing to win the ball back.

Their attack quickly develops from here and ideally results in a shot at goal within the next few seconds. This is either achieved by few accurate passes to release a player or a driving run. The reality of this system is that it doesn't always end in a shot and sometimes the ball has to be recycled.

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Simeone's 4-4-2 in attack is a different animal that sees one winger drive centrally while the other stays out wide. The full-back on the side where the winger tucks in advances up the pitch to provide width.

They've been successfully doing this under Simeone for the best part of eight years now and a stellar roster of strikers and versatile attackers have made this a successful system that has won them La Liga, the Europa League, the Spanish Cup, a couple of Super Cups (One European Super Cup and a Spanish Super Cup), and taken them to two Champions League finals when they lost by a whisker to their domestic rivals on both occasions.

Where does Joao Felix fit in?

The honest answer to this question is everywhere. Pick any attacking position in Simeone's system and Felix has the characteristics to fit in. You couldn't rule him out playing as a striker either, his movement is good from deep and it could be argued that it would be good playing up front too, and his finishing isn't too shabby either. Having made that particular point, it's unlikely that Felix will be an out-and-out striker at Atleti.

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As a 19-year-old, there's still much about Felix's game that needs to be honed and developed, but he's currently suited to a much deeper position. His ability to play multiple positions is what makes him such a valuable asset to Simeone. He could put him on the wings to take players on, through the middle behind the striker to link up play, or upfront so he can drop in and create space for his strike partner. The role he will play in this Atleti side is a mix of all that.

As a winger in this Simeone attack, Felix will have three primary functions which will then be broken down to detailed instruction. First, pressing on the flanks will be a core requirement of his role. This is where it begins for Atleti, and Felix will be expected to do his part. When Atleti win the ball, he will become a part of an uncoiling spring going quickly the other way.

Second, drive forward quickly whether on the ball or off the ball, either way, the goal is to exploit the spaces left in behind by the opposition. Felix, in his personal locker, has plenty of skill, pace, and intelligence to do this in multiple ways as he displayed on multiple occasions last season at Benfica, and has done so in pre-season for Atleti so far.

Third, if the initial counter is unsuccessful, we will see Felix take up a central role behind the two strikers with the goal of receiving the ball in space and finding an adequate release. Whether it's shooting from distance, playing through balls, taking on defenders or drawing them away Felix seems capable of it all and will be asked to show his manager his guile in doing so on matchday.

This is very similar to the role Griezmann was tasked with when he arrived at Atleti, though, towards the end he moved into a striker role. In either position, he ended each season he spent at Atleti as their top scorer. Simeone will be hoping that his new recruit can do the same.

Published 30 Jul 2019, 15:17 IST
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