After just one strong season at Benfica, he was already in great demand: striker João Félix
Photo: JAVIER BARBANCHO / REUTERS
There wasn't much to see from João Félix on Saturday in Vigo, but the little was tough.
In stoppage time, the Atlético Madrid attacker lifted the ball over an opponent, picked it up after a rebound, twisted it against the crossbar and thus initiated the 2-0 final score.
It was only one action, but it was already awakened for the Champions League start with defending champion Bayern Munich (9 p.m., live ticker SPIEGEL.de; TV: Sky): the longing for the Portuguese "menino de ouro" - the golden boy - and the special ingredients that he mixes in Atlético's otherwise tough football food.
127 million euros went to Benfica Lisbon for him in 2019.
By far the most expensive transfer in the club's history.
João Félix, then 19, was presented at the Prado, a real masterpiece, and Atlético seemed to be bursting with pride: attracting such players symbolized the club's advancement and ambitions.
Even then, the question was circulating only marginally: Is this filigree technician really in the right place with the robust painter of trainer Diego Pablo Simeone?
João Félix scored six goals in 27 league games in his first season in the Primera División
Photo: JAVIER BARBANCHO / REUTERS
A good year later, you're not much smarter.
His first year was marked by individual strokes of genius, but above all by injuries, tactical debates and the realization that the development of young players requires patience.
After just a few months, however, he himself had used it up to such an extent that he moved to his favorite position in the middle during a game in Granada, even though Simeone tried to bark at him from outside on the wing.
Or disregarded the internal shooting hierarchy with a penalty in the Champions League against Moscow to end a streak of over 300 minutes without his team's goal.
Félix scored, he delivered under pressure, as one would expect from a star and to the delight of the fans.
When they could still go to the stadium, they whistled against Simeone if he would replace him again.
On other evenings, Félix wasn't even in the starting line-up, like at Atlético's most important game of the season, the Champions League quarter-finals against RB Leipzig.
He only came when the score was 0: 1, shone ad hoc, converted a penalty to equalize and ensured the only phase of Madrid's overweight before the Leipzig team sealed one of the worst defeats in Simeone's nine-year tenure.
The criticism afterwards was fierce for the coach, who puts physique and discipline so uncompromisingly above talent that he preferred to attack Marcos Llorente: a defensive midfielder converted into a striker.
The wrong football for Félix?
In the new season everything should get better and Félix should mature from "promise to fact" (club president Enrique Cerezo).
In the first game he conducted brilliantly, Atlético beat Granada 6-1.
But at the beginning of the season, Simeone flirts with more open, courageous football - only to quickly return to the usual rigidity after the first setbacks.
This time the disillusionment followed in the form of two 0-0 in a row and revived doubts about Félix's compatibility with the wait-and-see counter-style, because of which he usually gets the few balls that land on him far away from the goal.
But that doesn't match his game: the slim technician is stronger in the interfaces than in large rooms.
For the game in Vigo, which he completed so brilliantly, he was substituted on after a muscle injury by Diego Costa, who had formed the opening storm together with Luis Suárez: two brawlers, "one bites, one hits" (Costa), like them at first glance, they fit their coach much better.
But of course Simeone is not that simple.
The trainer wants the class of João Félix - just on his terms.
As with Antoine Griezmann, whom he shaped from a dazzling talent to a ready-made star, versatile, defensive and efficient.
"Very hard," the French called this process.
"I always heard his voice on the back of my neck, demanding things from me that I was not used to ... But in the end I learned a lot."
Reunion in the club shirt: France's Benjamin Pavard will again be Felix’s opponent with Bayern Munich on Wednesday
Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP
Félix is now subject to the same crash course.
Before Vigo, Simeone measured him publicly.
With a poisoned compliment for his most recent internationals, he called for more commitment at Atlético.
"With Portugal I saw a commitment and a willingness to support the team that we also need here."
Does he still fit into Atlético's corset or is it too tight for him?
The attraction of a club that has recently turned their backs on a noticeable number of top performers also depends on this question.
While Lucas Hernández (for FC Bayern), Rodri (Manchester City) and Griezmann (Barcelona) already used their release clauses in 2019, Thomas Partey went to Arsenal the same way - the midfielder apparently even sees better prospects at a Europa League club.
Expensive strikers came - and they were quickly gone
The offensive forces have always had a hard time at Simeone.
The list of those who failed is long.
Mario Mandzukic, Luciano Vietto, Jackson Martínez, Kevin Gameiro, Nico Gaitán, Gelson Martins: they all cost at least 20 million euros, and they were all gone quickly.
This summer Álvaro Morata was loaned to Juventus, while Vitolo and Thomas Lemar only stayed because of a lack of interested parties.
João Félix is probably more talented than all of them, but it has to develop better.
Otherwise the assessment of the Portuguese top division coach Carlos Carvahal would be confirmed, who described Simeone's style of play as a "restriction" for the golden boy and made a comparison that must hurt Atlético fans like no other: "He would be better off at Real Madrid."
Icon: The mirror