For all of Manchester City’s riches, when they take on Atletico Madrid tonight in the quarter-final of the Champions League, they will not boast the most expensive player on the pitch. Instead, that tag is bestowed upon the shoulders of 22-year-old Portuguese forward Joao Felix.
In 2019, Atleti splashed out £113m on a 19-year-old Golden Ball winner from Benfica. He’d scored 20 goals that season for the Portuguese giants and was one of the hottest properties in European football, but it came as a surprise that the usually frugal Diego Simeone secured his signature at such great expense.
Yet it has taken until midway through his third season for him to establish himself in the Spanish capital. He arrived with great fanfare, which is to be expected when a player comes in for over £100m, but he couldn’t get going in the red and white stripes. Four goals in his first 22 starts saw Simeone take him out of the firing line and he has had to work to win back his manager’s trust.
Atleti famously won La Liga last term, but Felix was a bit-part player, and didn’t make a single start in the final eight games - the key run-in where the title was ultimately decided. In Simeone’s high-pressing, high-aggression side, it looked as if there was simply no room for the obviously talented, but sometimes lazy, forward.
His flair, and manipulation of the ball has always been sensational but it appears now he has finally earned the trust of his manager, even if his running figures still fall below his fellow strikers. He has matured as a player over the last two years, but it seems all he really needed was the confidence of a manager who rules with an iron fist.
Felix was handed a rare start against Osasuna in mid-February and hasn’t looked back since. He bagged a goal and an assist that day, followed it up with a flying header against Manchester United in the first leg and is now on a run of eight consecutive starts - his most since that first campaign.
In those games he has bagged seven goals and two assists, and it's not a coincidence that Atleti have now won six in a row in the league, and progressed to the last eight in Europe since he has been starting matches. Things are looking up from an individual perspective, and the hottest prospect in Europe is finally living up to his price tag, something not many players in history can claim.
If we look at the players that have cost clubs £100m or more, only a couple can be considered a success. Neymar has done well at PSG, as has Kylian Mbappe, but aside from that, it is much of a muchness.
A hat-trick of Barcelona buys have all flopped. Antoine Griezmann goes down as one of the worst signings of all time, Philippe Coutinho’s Barcelona stint was nothing short of a disaster and Ousmane Dembele hasn’t hit the heights expected of him at the same club.
In England, Jack Grealish hasn’t quite matched up to his £100m fee but time is on his side and Romelu Lukaku has a hell of a lot to prove in order to pay Chelsea back for their investment. So the bar isn’t that high for Felix, and we have only got a small sample of recent success to base this on.
But the signs are that Atleti’s investment is finally paying off. Now, a Champions League masterclass against Pep Guardiola’s City would make his stock skyrocket.