Joao Felix and Chelsea: A marriage made in heaven or an inconvenient affair?

Chelsea signing Joao Felix could be the dose of redemption that both sides are seeking.

Looking back at the 2018/19 season, Chelsea newcomer Joao Felix would take his first steps at the senior level into fulfilling his dream as a professional footballer and achieving stardom. The youngster, then at Benfica, made his senior bow against Boavista and did not look back.

Act 1: The Prodigal Child

A return of 15 goals and nine assists in 26 league appearances, also becoming the youngest scorer in the Lisbon Derby. A scintillating performance in the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals against Eintracht Frankfurt saw him net his first continental hat-trick despite the Portuguese giants being knocked out.

One team, that went all the way in the competition that season was Chelsea, who defeated Arsenal to lift the trophy in Baku. The Blues also made it to the final of the Carabao Cup while finishing a respectable third in the Premier League.

For someone looking in, both Chelsea and Felix appeared to be on their way up. Now just four years later, either could prove to be the other’s salvation or turn out to be another misstep in a future that promised so much.

Heading towards greatness while at Benfica! (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

Act 2: The rise and fall of a star

Benfica could only take Felix so far, and a move to a bigger club was only a matter of time. It came as a surprise that he opted to move to Atletico Madrid – a formidable side that put more emphasis on defence rather than attack.

To his credit, the Portuguese international thrived but never quite saw his career take off as expected. A return of 34 goals and 18 assists in 131 appearances is not a bad return. But in terms of consistency and taking his game to the next level, Diego Simeone could not coax out Felix’s best.

Having fallen down the pecking order, the 2023 January transfer window was a shot at redemption. Chelsea, a team in a similar boat offer him just that. Still adjusting to the post-Roman Abramovich era, the Blues are floundering both on and off the field as they attempt to rebuild their credentials as top-four regulars.

Graham Potter’s side lacks intensity and identity, something unexpected before the current season kicked off. In many ways, the club’s search for an identity mirrors that of Felix, who is keen to rebuild his image.

Joao Felix has stagnated at Atletico Madrid. (Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

It thus came as no surprise that he was loaned on a move to Stamford Bridge. The six-month loan allows him to break away from Simeone’s rigid setup and express himself in Potter’s attacking tactics. The Blues are in search of a difference-maker upfront, something Felix could provide.

Act 3: Redemption?

The 23-year-old has much of his career ahead of him and can still fulfil his potential. Stamford Bridge needs a hero, a defining player who can help the team transition to a new era. Felix can do that and could very well be the ‘franchise player’ that Todd Boehly needs.

Unlike at Atletico Madrid where he warmed the bench, Felix was thrown into the first XI against Fulham mere hours after joining Chelsea, a show of faith in his abilities or a sign of desperation – you choose!

Either way, the attacker impressed, at least initially. He was Chelsea’s standout player against the Cottagers, sowing chaos in the opposition’s defences with his flicks and tricks. He did not lack confidence and appeared to be the player of old, bold and willing to take chances.

But then you can take the player out of Simeone’s system but not the system out of the player. A tackle that would have earned him cheers at the Civitas Metropolitano only got him jeers at Craven Cottage. Felix’s Chelsea debut lasted a mere 58 minutes before he was handed his marching orders.

In many ways, the performance mirrored Felix’s career – a good start followed by an overzealous decision that brought it to a grinding halt. He will now spend the next three games on the sidelines. However, all hope is not lost as in the brief time on the field at Craven Cottage, he showed exactly what Chelsea were seeking – inspiration and fight.

In a side that lacked ideas and imagination, Felix stood out and appeared the most likely to make a difference. As expected after his ending off, Chelsea regressed and did not show the same verve or attacking impetus.

His time out might prove to be a blessing in disguise for both parties. Not only will it give Potter more time to acquaint his new signing with the system but also help Felix introspect on what he is seeking out of the stint at Stamford Bridge.

Graham Potter needs a hero. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Act 4: Rebuild

His incident-filled debut will certainly see him come under the media scanner. While the focus on his failings might not be as acute as that felt by Darwin Nunez, the English media are unlikely to hand a free pass to someone not from local shores. How he deals with it could define his stay in the country.

With no option to make the deal permanent, Chelsea will be keen to squeeze every drop of football they can out of the 23-year-old. This works in the Portuguese international’s favour as he is more or less guaranteed playtime when available.

The Blues need someone who can salvage their season. And the money thrown at Atletico Madrid in January show they believe Felix can be that man. Having largely played with one arm tied behind him in Spain, the shackles are off, and the onus is on the player to prove the faith put in him.

Felix will do well to treat his stint as an audition of sorts, reminding Europe’s big boys that his talents are not beyond redemption. Chelsea, too, will benefit should he hit top gear, potentially stabilising the club’s performances and proving that Boehly’s rebuild has some logic in fact.

Felix showed at the World Cup that he can make a difference in the right system. (Photo by Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)

The Blues have proven to be a cesspit of attackers in recent times. The likes of Fernando Torres, Andriy Shevchenko, Alexandre Pato, Alvaro Morata, Radamel Falcao, Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner all saw their legacy take a beating in the English capital. Kai Havertz is still at the club. But calling his transfer a success would be seriously overstating it.

With Christopher Nkunku set to arrive in the summer, Felix will do well to ease worries regarding the strikers’ curse. With the Frenchman’s arrival imminent, Chelsea have no reason to make Felix’s stay permanent. It provides a convenient arrangement where both player and club can focus on short-term goals rather than build a long-term vision.

Chelsea are rebuilding but are yet to build a solid foundation on which to do so. Felix’s arrival also reflects the same to a degree and can be considered a short-term fix. There is, however, no zero-sum game here as either both sides thrive from the partnership or it falls flat on their faces.

Act 5: Rebirth

Whether it be a show of trust or an act of desperation, Graham Potter was ready to play Joao Felix from the off. Whether the sentiment remains once he returns to action after serving his suspension remains to be seen. A return to Atletico Madrid serves him little as long as Simeone is in charge. After all, the Argentine is unlikely to structure the team around Felix’s attacking strengths.

Felix should use his time at Stamford Bridge as an audition of sorts. (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)

Potter, on the other hand, is more attack-minded. And the difference in attitude was seen in the way Felix took to the field for Chelsea. He once again looked like a player who was enjoying his game and doing what he does best – trying to put the ball in the back of the net. For 57 minutes against Fulham, it shrieked of a player rediscovering his own.

A lot is riding for both sides in this arrangement of sorts. After all, Todd Boehly has shown that he is not averse to throwing money at a problem until it disappears. Should Felix make a difference, he might very well end up calling Stamford Bridge home for years to come.

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