Joao Felix showed Chelsea what they’ve been missing for an hour and what they will now miss again for the next three games. The skilful halfwit.
Felix’s arrival at Chelsea should have excited more than it has. This is a guy who cost Atletico Madrid £120m in 2019. That’s a superstar fee for someone who has too rarely looked like a superstar in the three years since. But Felix and Diego Simeone always felt like a strange pairing, and having escaped the clutches of one of the most obstinate and polarising managers in world football, there’s more than a good chance Felix will thrive away from the Wanda Metropolitano and he showed promising signs at Craven Cottage on Thursday.
It’s just a six-month loan deal, with no option to buy, and was agreed only after Felix signed a contract extension until 2027. Make no mistake, this is a wonderful deal for Atletico, who have made £9m and don’t have to pay £270,000 a week for a player Simeone puts on the bench. Felix will return to Madrid at the start of next season – hopefully having regained some confidence through game time at Chelsea – when Atletico will likely have a new manager. They’re laughing.
But needs must for Chelsea, who can’t score or create goals, and have signed someone who has consistently done both. Despite being far from a first choice under Simeone in the last two seasons, Felix has averaged a goal or an assist every 97 minutes in La Liga.
It will be good for Graham Potter to have one of his own. It’s not clear whether he wanted Felix specifically or if the 23-year-old is more a body to aid in a desperate situation, but it should be comforting for him to have a player bought under his watch to lean on, rather than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who appears to have been sulking for all but the first five days of his Chelsea stay, after which Thomas Tuchel was sacked.
The fact Aubameyang stayed on the bench despite Potter making all five substitutions, including a late quadruple as Chelsea chased the game, was telling. The 33-year-old may indeed have played his last game for the club. What a mess.
But sulk or not, forwards have typically struggled at Chelsea in recent times. Mason Mount aside, members of Chelsea’s front three in the last two-and-a-half years have ranged from mediocre to p*ss poor. Felix took less than two minutes to show a quality they have dearly missed in that time.
His nutmeg on Tim Ream was delightful, but it was the run off the ball down the wing that caught the eye. The other Chelsea forwards all want the ball to feet, all of the time. Felix can work in those positions between the lines, and was involved in some neat build-up play – flicking the ball on for Kai Havertz and getting it back; drifting past defenders with the ball at his feet. But his first thought was to stretch the play or spin in behind.
Felix made plenty of runs beyond that went unnoticed, and the notes in training at Cobham should surround his teammates’ ability to find him, rather than amendments to the new signing’s game. Though they can now of course put that work on the backburner.
It was a reminder to Chelsea fans – some of whom have attempted to spare themselves the pain of complete attacking ignominy by suggesting Havertz has been playing well – as to what good forward play actually looks like.
They might forget by the time Felix next pulls on a Chelsea shirt, with him now set to miss the next three games (15% of the Premier League games left available to him) having been shown a straight red card for a ludicrous and idiotic challenge on the hour mark. There was no need whatsoever.
You’ve got to feel for Potter, whose squad has already been decimated by injury and who saw Denis Zakaria – arguably Chelsea’s best player during his brief reign – hobble off moments before Felix followed him down the tunnel.
It feels as though everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for Potter, who will be under increased pressure after this their seventh defeat in 11 games, but has been handed further very valid excuses for the continuing poor form.
Willian’s opener for Fulham was deflected in off the post with the shot heading straight for Kepa Arrizabalaga, who would have comfortably caught Carlos Vinicius’ headed winner had he not rushed foolishly off his line.
Chelsea had more than twice as many shots as the hosts, ten shots on target to their three, an xG of 2.18 to 0.71, were in the ascendency for most of the game and in particular at the point they were reduced to ten men. Potter will just be hoping his side’s luck can change before Todd Boehly changes him.
No sooner had Felix offered the Chelsea boss a glimmer of hope through forward quality that the team has sorely lacked had he added to the gloom through a stunning show of stupidity they could really have done without.