“Shut the fuck up.”
João Félix, enraged, uttered those words with a finger pressed to his lips in pure “are you not entertained?” fashion, having chested the ball down and volleyed it past Villareal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo seconds before. The goal had put Atlético Madrid up 2-0 away at a ground where they hadn’t won in five years, in a game they desperately needed to win to maintain their dwindling lead atop the La Liga standings. Félix came on as a substitute and had been on the pitch for fewer than 24 minutes before creating the game’s defining moment. It was his first goal since January 24—he’d missed two games after testing positive for the coronavirus and been scoreless in three others—and his 10th of the season in all competitions, surpassing his record from all of last season. Something more important was at play in the moment, however: João Félix became a true Diego Simeone player.
“I love it when players rebel,” said Simeone afterward, like some kind of footballing Palpatine that finally got his apprentice to turn. Félix had shown signs of a rebellion long before the win over Villareal; he’d scored plenty of angry goals, celebrating them with screams of “Vamos!” and an expression more scowling with each passing week.
The Félix from this season is unrecognizable from the wide-eyed, bushy-haired teenager who announced himself as the next elite European prospect when he was at Benfica three years ago—he celebrated a double against Vitória Setúbal by seeking out his younger brother, a Benfica ballboy, and scored his first hat trick in the Europa League against Eintracht Frankfurt all in the span of one week.
After Atléti sold Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona in 2019, it agreed to pay a total of €126 million—€6 million above Félix’s release clause—to make the 19-year-old Portuguese striker its record signing and Benfica’s record sale. Despite Félix’s immense potential, it was an odd fit—how would this precocious, free-flowing attacking starlet handle being coached by Simeone, one of the masters of football’s #darkarts who was famed for a 4-4-2 and defensive solidity? This Atléti team is not built in exactly the same image as the side that won the La Liga title in 2014 and went to two Champions League finals in three years, but it contains some of the same DNA. Would João be seduced by the dark side?
Two years later, I don’t think anyone could have predicted Félix’s transformation. It’s hard to remember Atléti signing a player with Félix’s skill set and Simeone instilling in them some of his classic grit at no detriment to their technical wonder. Because, honestly, who is this kid? He went from wholesome videos embracing his brother to scowling “shut the fuck up” to the sideline after scoring goals. Everyone’s favorite future son-in-law suddenly arrived at the altar of Simeone’s Church of Shithousery. Félix has fared better than Álvaro Morata, sidelined Diego Costa, and is coexisting alongside newly arrived Luis Suárez while exhibiting the chops to become, eventually, the team’s leader.
I don’t think many would have expected Félix to take on so much responsibility in this Atléti side so quickly. The 21-year-old is the second-youngest member of Atléti’s senior squad and an increasingly pivotal piece of an emerging Portugal team still dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence. But as Félix starts to assert himself at the club and international level, he carries a stark warning: He’s still yet to reach the peak of his powers and is nowhere near his final form.
Félix’s evolution seems to have scared even Simeone, who has given this season’s Atléti team more creative license, seemingly freeing them from the viciously rigid and rugged constraints placed on previous teams. In doing so, Suárez looks sharper than he has in years, fueled with revenge after his ousting at Barcelona. Thomas Lemar—the club’s previous record signing before Félix—has finally started to show the same kind of attacking fluency that he was known for at Monaco, just as his acquisition was about to be written off as a failure. In addition, Marcos Llorente’s increasing importance as well as the goals and positional flexibility he provides have been crucial.
Atléti has more ways to play and Simeone has more opportunities to fret. When the team’s form started to dip, the Argentine returned to type against Chelsea in the first leg of their Champions League matchup. Their performance in a 1-0 loss exposed the flaws in Simeone’s traditional approach; no longer can the likes of Gabi, Diego Godín, and Diego Costa snarl their way to clean sheets and yellow cards. This Atléti team wants to—and can—play with more attacking freedom, leaving Simeone occasionally looking torn between letting his team run free or reverting to what he knows.
That tension makes the next stage of Félix’s evolution even more exciting. In him, Simeone has a player who can create as well as any in recent Atléti memory, while also beginning to channel the energy of a recent club legend like Gabi. Félix now looks like a future Atlético Madrid captain. Who would have thought that just a couple of years ago?
When João Félix does reach his final form, it’ll most likely happen in an explosion of goalscoring, because that’s really all he has left to add to his game. It’s unthinkable that Félix wouldn’t reach double figures in the league this year and he should continue to increase his tally in seasons to come. When that happens, it’ll be as destructive as it will be beautiful: goals crafted by gods and delivered with the anger of demons.