The lure of Joao Felix proved too much for Todd Boehly. One last splash to prove his worth before seemingly handing the keys at Chelsea to one of the most extensive and deep recruitment teams ever assembled in European football.
The Portuguese forward has rarely displayed the consistency to justify Atletico Madrid’s staggering €126m (£112.9m) outlay from 2019, yet that is precisely why such a precocious talent is even available.
The allure of Felix was clear weeks ago, as Manchester United and Arsenal, a neater fit for his intrinsic control and movement, pondered their own loan offers.
Yet both clubs baulked at the mere suggestion of a fee north of €10m for the privilege of just six months of service.
As Mikel Arteta has the Gunners sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, now glowing after a painful rebuild, and Erik ten Hag continues to bolster his authority at Old Trafford ever more, Chelsea’s desperation ended the prospect of a bidding war.
With a hint of the previous era, to never relinquish a season, there should not even be a temptation to make such an aggressive move in this market. While the ambition is there, it is clear Boehly is willing to stomach a lean spell in exchange for a more sustainable model. Which is why, despite Felix’s youth, this deal makes little sense and further obscures the blueprint behind what the new ownership hopes to create.
Despite an awful run of form, Graham Potter is trusted to oversee a long-term vision, especially with the recruitment team now finally in place, including Christopher Vivell, Paul Winstanley, Laurence Stewart and Joe Shields.
Chelsea fans may be clouded by confusion at Felix’s arrival though, a wonderful talent, yet not somebody who will fill one of the gaping holes hindering immediate progress under Potter.
Neither a physical No 9, who can operate as a reference, or a pacey wide man able to stretch teams and create space for others through the middle. To play devil’s advocate slightly, Felix may well ensure more players of the same ilk on the pitch at the same time.
A deft touch and capable of sudden movement into space, Felix shares some traits with Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount, which could spark a more fluid attack from midfield into the final third.
Yet, without an option to buy, Felix’s arrival is shrouded in short termism, particularly with the imminent summer arrival of Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig. The dynamic and exciting French forward can serve as a cornerstone to this rebuild, yet another daunting outlay for Felix, should a permanent move materialise, will surely prevent other more pressing issues being addressed.
Greater urgency to secure a deal for Felix may stem from Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic’s immediate health after hobbling off against Manchester City.
Relishing a central role with a partner, even as split strikers, would suit Felix and, probably, Kai Havertz. Yet Potter would likely lose control in midfield with a traditional 4-4-2 shape, or rely heavily on Reece James to firstly stay fit and then inject a threat from wider areas if a back three is utilised.
Felix’s temporary release from the shackles of Diego Simeone ought to provide joy to the neutral though.
Felix’s stint on the bench earlier this season brought a run of nine substitute appearances in 10 games before the World Cup. It has been a common theme, with just 55 La Liga starts from a possible 130 games now, prompting ‘Cholo’ to deliver a public message to his player in October: “As soon as he returns to performing well in training, he works, he recovers his goalscoring, which we will need, he will play. But while I am here, it goes by performances. That is why other teammates are playing. It remains clear that every time he was good, he played.”
A January departure has therefore been a long time coming, even if temporarily, given chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin’s comments last month: “The relationship between him and the míster [Simeone] is not good, nor is his motivation.”
Having idolised Kaka, you can see that same joy the Brazilian would often bring when gliding across the pitch in the red and black of AC Milan, even intermittently in the red and white stripes in La Liga. Now, under Potter, there is at least scope for a more expressive role.
Even if Mikel Arteta’s more stable set-up might have suited Felix better, you could imagine a reluctance from the Spaniard to immediately disrupt a well-established pecking order at the Emirates. While the appeal of a glamorous Champions League tie for Chelsea against Borussia Dortmund may also have proved decisive.
Felix has produced just four goals and three assists this season, but dig a little deeper and Potter should be excited by his potential. He has delivered 0.59 non-penalty expected goals + assists per 90 minutes which ranks him 11th in LaLiga, according to FBref.
Furthermore, you can see Felix’s potential to provide inspiration to a stuttering Chelsea attack that has provided just five goals in eight games. Felix’s goal creating actions (passes, dribbles and drawing fouls) per 90 minutes sits at 0.69 this season, ranking him seventh.
With no option or obligation to buy, this is clearly a roll of the dice by Chelsea and Felix, who can use this opportunity to ensure more clamour for a permanent move this summer. Only Boehly and the co-owners at Clearlake Capital will know how precious a top-four finish this season is. But a gap of 10 points to Manchester United and Newcastle, who have played a game more, with 21 matches remaining is not an insurmountable one.
So while Felix may well provide short-term respite for Potter and co, his mere presence highlights the haphazard nature that currently surrounds the club’s strategy.