When Diego Costa and David Villa both left Atlético Madrid in 2014, no one anticipated it would be six years until there was another deadly duo in attack for Diego Simeone’s side.
Even during the heights of Antoine Griezmann’s time at the club, he stood alone in attack. Fernando Torres never reached the same level in his second spell, Kevin Gameiro struggled to settle and Costa was a shadow of his former self upon his return. In his first season after a €126million move to replace Griezmann, it seemed that João Félix could follow the same path.
Then came Luis Suárez. Ditched by Barcelona, Atlético finally had a first-class centre forward to partner Félix. At 33, he’s a player who had been everywhere and done it all. Much like Villa when he came in, who helped to tame the aggression of Costa and show him the movements he needed to cause problems, Suárez has come in and looked to make Félix his project. For the first time since Félix joined the club, he had a partner with whom he could build a relationship.
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Up to that point, Félix had been paired with Costa or Álvaro Morata. When fit, Costa’s immobility didn’t suit Félix’s free movement and flowing style, while Morata depended too much on being on the shoulder of the last man, leaving Félix without anyone holding the ball up for him and isolated in the central gap between midfield and attack. Rather than providing the link between them, Félix was lost in no man’s land, isolated and easy to bully off the ball without passing options, without space to run into and without physical support.
It would be easy to imagine that Simeone had this in mind when he allowed Morata to depart for Juventus and brought in Suárez. Suárez may not be as mobile as he once was, but he provides movement in attack. Able to do the physical battling that Costa does, but also able to pull defences apart with his movement, he remains a far more mobile option than Barcelona fans would give him credit for. It was the mobility that Atlético Madrid needed to create space for Félix to play in.
In fact, the move is one which Simeone has admitted himself. When asked about Félix’s form, Simeone said: “I believe that all this is generated from the presence of Suárez, with the likes of Costa and Morata before him, they had a lot of other characteristics, but we have been looking for other qualities.”
João Félix's last two LaLiga games:
He only scores braces. pic.twitter.com/2bfpbN1Dx2
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 7, 2020
Despite that, it would be fair to say that the partnership didn’t get off to the best of starts, with a still unfit Suárez and Félix drawing a blank on their first start together away to newly-promoted Huesca, and then again against Villarreal the following weekend. As injury struck Costa down against Celta Vigo, Félix and Suárez became the first-choice unit in the Atlético Madrid attack.
It wasn’t actually until matchday seven that one of this new dynamic duo scored when both were on the field as Suárez sealed a victory over Real Betis. Since then, Atleti have scored 11 goals in four games, with Félix or Suárez involved in almost two thirds of those goals. The other key factor has been the introduction of Marcos Llorente. The former holding midfielder, turned forward, has been sensational since Simeone played him in attack last season and he has kept up that form in 2020/21.
Sticking to the same 4-4-2 system, Llorente operates out wide and pushes on, meaning that when Atleti are in possession, they effectively play in a 4-3-3 shape with Suárez and Llorente terrorising defenders with their movement and allowing Félix to float in behind, almost like a false nine. This freedom is giving him an opportunity to play his game as he wants to, on his terms.
Beyond Llorente, Suárez and Félix have developed a special relationship. “I think this year he’s beginning to excite people, he feels much more confident, Suárez told Diario AS, discussing his partnership with Félix.”
“If the rest of us help him and support him how he needs it, he won’t have to carry all the responsibility, we are a team.”
Suárez and Félix have built up a rapport between them, so much so that when VAR ruled Suárez’s goal onside against Cádiz, having initially been ruled out, Spanish commentators joked that Félix was happier than the Uruguayan was.
Looking into the numbers, we can see the clear difference. Jumping from 0.43 xG to 0.6 xG per game is a 40% increase in the quality of Félix’s chances, given that the number of shots he averages per game has only increased by 3%. It’s evident that Félix’s game has evolved and Atlético Madrid are getting their money’s worth this season.
29 – Luis Suárez has scored at least once against each of his 29 opponents in @LaLigaEN. The Uruguayan striker has scored with five of his eight shots on target for @atletienglish in the competition. Insatiable. pic.twitter.com/Um13EiWr0N
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) November 7, 2020
We have also seen how the Portugal international has become more clinical. Having played seven games, he is just one goal short of his tally for 27 games in 2019/20. Yet, this time around he is surpassing his xG and outscoring by 1.57, as opposed to underscoring by 1.97 last season. That kind of deadly instinct in front of goal is closer to the kind of figures he was recording at Benfica, which persuaded Atleti to fork out a club record fee for him.
Another major factor in his development has come from his consistency. Adapting to life in a new league was hard enough for a player who was still a teenager when he moved across the Portuguese-Spanish border. Two separate ankle injuries and a muscle strain meant that he failed to register back-to-back games of 90 minutes all season. This season, after resting an ankle issue towards the end of 2019/20, he has come back in fantastic shape. Atlético’s famous fitness coach, “Profe” Ortega, has got him into an excellent physical condition and the greater support around him has reduced the number of kicks he gets.
The result is that Atlético Madrid have a €126million striker in attack. Alongside him, they have one of Europe’s most elite veterans. After several years in which Atlético have always been “one good striker away” from competing for the title, they now have two of La Liga’s best playing alongside one another. La Liga, and the world, should watch out.