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After struggling at Atletico, Joao Felix is back to his best for Barcelona


“The change was good for me. I’m happy.” Saturday night atop Montjuic in Barcelona, and in eight words João Félix had summed it all up, ensuring that no more are really necessary. Nothing to add. Might as well stop reading, then. There can be few cases as simple as his, few secrets as open.

By the end, no one was even trying to hide it anymore. Everyone already knew, and for the few that were a little slow, he’d said so publicly: Felix wanted to leave Atletico Madrid. Wanted? Needed.

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And actually, he wasn’t the only one. Atletico had wanted, needed, him to leave too, and for quite a while. Even if it was a loan deal, he had to be let go — a problem that was postponed rather than resolved. There is a line on him from coach Diego Simeone that runs: “What has to happen will happen.” That was back in December last year and it didn’t, not yet, despite them managing to get him to go to London. Maybe now it finally has. A loan to Chelsea didn’t work out. Three games into another loan, this time at Barcelona, it actually might.

On Wednesday, Felix scored again. In just three games for Barcelona, he has scored three times and provided an assist. He has started twice — something, he noted a little pointedly, that he has not done “for a long time” — and the aggregate score from those games is 10-0.

This was a step forward, Barca manager Xavi said; the best football they had played under him. In each, against Betis first and then Antwerp, he was named man of the match and he improved those around him too. He looked a little like the kind of footballer that, well, you might once have paid €126 million to sign. Instead, he had come for free and cut his wages.

It was what he wanted. “It’s true I gave up a significant part of my salary, but I needed a change,” Felix said. Listen to Felix, read the things he has to say, and some words keep coming up. Need. Change. Happy. Happy now, not before. He had to get out of Atletico. There’s something about his move to Barcelona that feels like a rescue mission.

Atletico’s dramatic improvement last season had coincided with Felix leaving for Chelsea, his absence projected, a little easily, as the best thing that could have happened to them, cause and effect. When preseason started before what should have been his fifth year at Atletico, none of which had truly convinced, he was forced to train alone. Everyone knew that he and the coach didn’t see things the same way. They were desperate for a transfer if they could make one happen or loan if they had to. Almost as desperate as he was for them to do so.

But not many clubs wanted him, which was telling too. At Chelsea, then-coach Graham Potter might have but he was soon gone, and Frank Lampard didn’t. Nor did the new manager Mauricio Pochettino. Besides, Felix had come out and publicly said that he wanted to go to Barcelona specifically. He needed a place where he could play, his way.

“I couldn’t adapt to the ideas of the club and the coach [at Atletico],” he told Mundo Deportivo this week. Here are some other lines: “I needed to go somewhere I would play my football. I had to be happy playing again. Xavi told me to play to enjoy it, to play with happiness.” That was all he had wanted and it all seems so simple now, so different to Atletico, so obvious. Of course Barcelona was going to be good for him.

Only, it wasn’t that obvious. Xavi didn’t appear entirely convinced. The talent is not in doubt, they say, but maybe it was now. The fit on the left was natural enough — if left-back Alejandro Balde could accompany him. But it wasn’t a position Barcelona desperately needed. Above all, Barcelona didn’t really have the money, because his arrival meant departures.

For some, the fact that Ansu Fati ultimately had to go for Felix to arrive provoked sadness, a sense of loss. Then there was the question of mentality, application.

His time at Atletico hadn’t always been awful — it is too easily forgotten that when they won the league he was Spain’s outstanding player in the first half of the season — and although it is easy to paint Simeone as the anti-football manager who wouldn’t set him free, wouldn’t play the way he wanted, that wasn’t always entirely true either.

No one doubted his talent; that conversation caught on camera between Atletico’s Saul and Jan Oblak comes to mind. “He’s the best, when he wants to be,” they said. And there was no escaping that it was four years they had waited: He was no kid anymore.

On Friday, Saul said: “As a player, he’s very good. [But] then you have to want it, you have to adapt. Maybe if his mindset wasn’t in the best place, it couldn’t work out here. I think he could have done things better. He didn’t, and I think that has taken its toll on him in the club and the team.”

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Xavi on 5-0 Champions League win: We attacked brilliantly

Xavi Hernandez talks about Barcelona’s 5-0 win over Royal Antwerp in the Champions League.

Mind may be the word. By the end, he needed to be some other place, physically and emotionally. He had disengaged, looked lost, alone, the dressing room and the coach harbouring doubts about him. Something had to change, everyone could see.

Hoping that place was Barcelona, saying so while still an Atletico player a means of trying to push the deal through, aware that this was starting to look like it might even be a last chance, he eventually got the move to a place that so far looks even better he wanted.

“I thought and still do think that this was the ideal place for me, but I didn’t expect a start this good,” Felix said.

Can he keep it up? If he ultimately plays badly, Felix and Atletico have to go through it all again. If he’s brilliant, then what? If Barcelona are able to help his value get back to where it once was they probably won’t be able to pay it. Next summer, one thing’s for sure: There will be a future to resolve.

For now, though, it is all going perfectly. For now, it is revealed as the most obvious signing of all: A creative, technical talent leaves the team where he doesn’t fit and joins the team where he does, liberated at last, released from his rut and that funk he was in. For now, Felix is happy, and that is no little thing.



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