Joao Felix Is Inspiring Atletico Madrid to La Liga Title Tilt

Grey Whitebloom
Nov 8, 2020, 7:00 PM GMT
Joao Felix and Atletico Madrid have been made fast starts to the season
Joao Felix and Atletico Madrid have been made fast starts to the season | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

As Atletico Madrid eased their way to a win over Cadiz on Saturday, Angel Correa darted into the penalty box in the final minute, dragging two yellow-shirted defenders with him only to loft a pass across to the last man you want to leave unmarked: Joao Felix.

The silkiest of first touches with the top of his chest immediately brought the ball under his spell and as it dropped, almost in slow motion, Felix had the time and composure to steal a fleeting glance at the onrushing goalkeeper before thumping in his second, and Atletico's fourth, of the match.

This emphatic victory briefly sent Atletico top of the La Liga table, but was merely the latest in an impressive run of form driven forward by their electric 20-year-old, and a change of fortune.

Felix's arrival at the Spanish capital in the summer of 2019, after just one season of senior football and for the eye-watering fee of €126m, appeared to signal a shift in strategy for Diego Simeone and his savvy, parsimonious Atletico. Now equipped with one of Europe's most exciting attacking talents, Los Colchoneros were all but obliged to evolve the gritty 'Cholismo' style.

But that era-changing transition never really came.

For much of the 2019/20 campaign, Atletico ground out games just as they had before, scoring and conceding fewer goals compared to the previous campaign. In last season's Champions League round of 16, Simeone's side were at their battling best to hold onto a 1-0 lead for more than 85 minutes against Liverpool in the first leg.

It would always take Felix time to adapt to Atletico's idiosyncrasies but his influence is such that now the team are starting bend to his attacking verve.

Atletico's 4-0 win over Cadiz on the weekend, inspired by the Portuguese, not only extended their unbeaten run in La Liga to 23 games - a club-record streak which stretches back to the halcyon and pre-pandemic days of February. But also marked the club's fourth victory by three clear goals since Spanish football returned in June.

Prior to their 5-0 evisceration of Osasuna - in which Felix bagged a brace - in the second game after lockdown, Atletico had gone 48 matches across all competitions without recording a winning margin of as many as three goals.

However, while Felix's slow start to life in red and white (nine goals in 36 appearances last season) warranted a caveat, so does his, and Atleti's, red-hot start.

Atletico Madrid are one of only three sides unbeaten domestically in Europe's top five leagues since football shut down in March
Atletico Madrid are one of only three sides unbeaten domestically in Europe's top five leagues since football shut down in March | Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

When football was suspended in March, Atletico had scored 29 league goals - excluding penalties - while the quality of their chances in that period, based on UnderStat’s expected goals (xG), suggested they warranted closer to 40. Essentially, they had squandered chances worth as many as ten goals. By that point no side in the division recorded a larger, negative discrepancy.

Post-lockdown, Atletico regressed to the mean and this season they have even begun to outperform their underlying metrics - scoring more than the xG from their chances created. Felix’s finishing has followed a similar uptick.

Atletico have also been the beneficiaries of spate of good form at the other end of the pitch. In their opening seven league games, Los Rojiblancos have conceded just two goals. As good as Jan Oblak is, maintaining a save rate north of 90% is likely to be beyond the Slovenian shot stopper over a 38-game season.

Having endured some unfavourable luck over the past 18 months or so, Atletico have reaped the rewards of a change in fortune. However, that is not to dismiss Atletico's or Felix's excellent start as the result of pure, unsustainable chance. Being lucky and good are not mutually exclusive, if anything, they often go hand in hand.