After yet another frantic deadline day, Barcelona secured two tantalizing transfers: Joao Cancelo and Joao Felix. The “Joaos” arrive with no shortage of expectations, both hoping to prove their worth on their season-long loan deals amidst troubling home-club situations.
Cancelo will, in all likelihood, shine as the club’s long-awaited natural right-back, with a defined role as a starter and back-up left-back. Felix’s situation, on the other hand, is not as clear.
The 23-year-old is still finding his footing, and four years after making his €126 million move to Atletico Madrid, time is running out for him to reach his lofty ceiling.
Felix made his Barça debut this past weekend against Osasuna, but there isn’t enough to take away from that brief cameo.
There’s plenty to unpack regarding Felix’s move: what does he bring to Barcelona? How will he fit into Xavi’s plans? Can he fulfill his potential with the Blaugrana? With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Barcelona’s new number 14.
A diamond in the rough?
Suffice to say, Joao Felix’s career has not yet lived up to its budding start. He burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old with Benfica, helping the Portuguese club win their domestic league in 2018-19, and turned heads with his creativity and technical ability.
What followed that summer was a bidding war between some of Europe’s biggest clubs, all seeking the services of one of Europe’s most promising youngsters. In a surprise turn of events, Felix signed with Atletico Madrid for the second-highest fee ever paid for a teenager (€126 million).
Immediate questions were asked of how this attacking starlet would fit into a Diego Simeone side known for a staunch defensive style of play, and four years (including a brief loan spell to flailing Chelsea last season) later, Felix may never play with Los Rojiblancos again.
He was unceremoniously booted out of Madrid and became a constant source of heckles and boos from the local crowds, he failed to impress Chelsea during his loan, and he only received serious offers this summer from Saudi Arabia.
In fact, Xavi was reportedly against signing Felix earlier this summer (for reasons we will outline later). Thus, Felix arrives at Barcelona with plenty of baggage and plenty to prove. Let’s find out if he can deliver.
As aforementioned, Felix was not atop Xavi’s wishlist this summer. The manager was concerned with his workrate and overall fit, which are not entirely unfounded.
Further, given the club’s financial situation, questions arose as to whether they should be spending money on a player whose skillset overlaps (to some extent) with the club’s current midfielders, and one who is not a proven commodity either.
Regarding his place in the team, one can see why Xavi was not entirely sold on Felix. First and foremost, Barcelona need to sharpen their toothless attack. To do so, the club desperately requires more vertical and creative threats from wide positions.
While Felix is not an out-and-out winger, he still fits Xavi’s “four-midfielder” system and can play in that quasi-left winger role.
Hence, Xavi changed his mind on Felix’s transfer – surely after some convincing from Deco and Joan Laporta – and Barcelona took the relatively risk-free decision of signing Felix on loan.
One must also appreciate Felix’s role in facilitating the transfer, as the Portuguese international declared his dreams of playing for Barcelona in a July interview with Fabrizio Romano, as well as significantly lowering his salary. So far so good.
Felix’s profile offers Barcelona substantial quality, technical ability, and creativity, and he will surely be a boost to the team’s attack, despite some concerns.
The 23-year-old is an overall versatile and imaginative forward, capable of playing anywhere across the frontline, whether at left-wing, centre-attacking mid, second striker (alongside a poacher/advanced forward), or up top as false nine.
Still, this versatility is both a blessing and a curse. Playing all over the attacking third means Felix hasn’t been able to solidify himself in one role, not unlike other young players in Europe who remain undefined, such as Ferran Torres or Kai Havertz.
Fortunately, Felix has an abundance of traits that allow him to thrive in multiple positions, and Xavi’s tutelage should help reign him in. After all, there’s always room for a creative spark.
Felix’s best position is arguably second striker, where he can drop deep to play balls onto wide-runners or a marauding centre-forward, as well as play off a more static target man. Examples of this are when he played up front alongside Haris Seferovic in Benfica, or notably Luis Suarez with Atletico Madrid.
While this position doesn’t strictly exist in Xavi’s setup, Felix as a left-winger should be able to invert into the left-half space and link up with Lewandowski centrally – more on this later.
Felix also lacks the high-end speed and directness of elite wingers, albeit his elusive dribbling and ball-carrying is one of his strengths. For these reasons, he thrives in the half-spaces and central positions, not out wide.
Overall, the right-footed Felix is defined by his creativity and playmaking. He loves dropping into the midfield positions to help his team build-up from deep, he plays passes that always ask questions of a defence, and he can orchestrate attacks by playing runners into space as well as being on the receiving end of passes into the final third.
In terms of limitations, Felix isn’t a formidable or physical presence in the box (although his finishing is nothing to ignore), he has a tendency to drift out of games, and his creativity is sometimes burdened by sub-par decision-making.
But one has to commend his inventiveness. Further, in an attacking set-up like Barcelona’s, more risk-taking is always welcomed.
With Felix’s profile in mind, let’s take a closer look at how Xavi can use him, and more importantly, what we can expect from him on the pitch.
What to expect from Felix
Felix will assuredly play as Barcelona’s left-winger, or fourth midfielder. How Xavi will balance him, Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Gavi, Ilkay Gundogan, and Oriol Romeu at the same time is another question entirely, but given the necessity to rotate, Felix should have ample playing time.
Further, Xavi may even try him as a false nine, but that may result in a lineup with too many redundancies, and no goalscoring threats.
At left-wing, Felix will be asked to invert and operate in the left-half space, allowing Balde to be the team’s wide threat on the left. Felix should thrive playing with the electric left-back, as his incisive passing would be rewarded with constant forward runs.
Centrally, Felix can take a lot of pressure off Lewandowski. The Polish international’s struggles are well documented, and Felix can hopefully provide more direct service to Barcelona’s No. 9, as well as occupy opposing centre-backs or generate space through alternating and rotating movements with the veteran.
Given Felix’s vast experience playing alongside archetypal centre-forwards, this could be an impressive partnership. Expect their chemistry to strengthen throughout the course of the season.
Lewandowski is looking for more support in the final third, and Felix should, in addition to providing key passes, be able to hit around 10-15 goals for the Catalans this season, helping to boost the team’s struggling attack.
Nonetheless, while Felix possesses quality in front of goal, he is not to be relied upon for gaudy goalscoring numbers. Rather, as aforementioned, expect Felix to be an outlet for clever passes into the box, long switches, and through balls to Cancelo, Lamine Yamal, or Raphinha, and to occupy defenders for Balde to make wide runs.
His movement around the final third should also generate fluidity for a team that can look one-dimensional and stagnant at times. In progressing situations, Felix’s inventiveness could shine, and his direct, risk-taking approach could yield results.
To conclude, Felix’s potential is clear as day, and where he fits in this Barcelona squad is alluring. He will not only provide depth to an already promising midfield, but his undeniable quality up front should help the Catalans retain their La Liga title, and hopefully go far in the Champions League.
In all, Felix must make the left-wing position his own. He has all the tools to do so, and if Xavi plays his cards right, this could be a sensational – and permanent – transfer.