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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Joao Felix’s Barcelona loan is not going to plan – so what happens now?

It’s been almost five months since Joao Felix landed in Barcelona on the summer transfer window’s deadline day. Taking a glance through his best moments for the La Liga champions, you’d see a decent compilation of highlights.

Last Sunday’s late go-ahead goal away against Real Betis, masterfully taken with the outside of his right boot, would be one of them. There was the excellent solo run and assist against Osasuna in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals 10 days before, a man-of-the-match display against Atletico Madrid in early December, and his fine performance against Athletic Bilbao in October, when he made the winner for then 17-year-old debutant Marc Guiu.

Joao Felix has registered seven goals and five assists in 26 games across all competitions for Barca, which is not a bad return. He has already matched the goal involvements he had in the whole of last season (nine goals plus three assists from his total of 40 games for parent club Atletico and when with Chelsea on loan from the middle of January).

However, Joao Felix has now lost his place in Xavi’s starting XI. The last league game he started was against Almeria on December 20, when he was taken off at half-time on a day Xavi strongly criticised the attitude of his players.

“There was no intensity or aggressiveness, I told the players at half-time,” the manager said. “It’s very worrying that a squad that has only won one La Liga title lacks this team spirit.

“We need to run our socks off. If we don’t run like animals, we won’t win games. This needs to change. If we can’t be clinical, we need to have soul as a team.”

Xavi did not publicly call out specific names but Joao Felix’s only starts since then have come against lower-division opposition in the Copa del Rey, and that speaks volumes.

Joao Felix has alternated episodes of sheer brilliance with multiple displays in which he seemed to lack purpose. With Xavi determined to recover the intensity and off-the-ball pressure that fueled last season’s title win, it is difficult to picture him being an instrumental part of the team.

So what is going to happen with him? Can Joao Felix reverse this situation? Does a permanent move to Barca next summer look likely? And if not, what is the next step for a 24-year-old who defiantly celebrated when his loan club beat Atletico last month?

As with almost every talking point at Barcelona, there are multiple factors involved here, from the manager’s perspective to that of the executive board, as well as the close relationships president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco hold with the player’s agent.

Has Joao Felix offered reasons to believe he is worth the money required to sign him next summer? The short answer is probably not, especially given the financial constraints Barcelona are facing — they are heavily in debt and already spending way more on wages than La Liga will allow. Joao Felix was brought in last summer to help improve their attack but, in truth, they haven’t done any better with him on the pitch.

There’s always a twist, though.

Enter Joao Felix’s agent, Jorge Mendes.

“I can say Barcelona are planning to sign (current loanees) Joao Cancelo and Joao Felix on a permanent basis. They want both players to stay beyond this summer,” Mendes said this week in an interview with Portuguese outlet Record. “Joao Felix has performed pretty well. People at the club are really happy with him and there is no doubt he is a wonderful footballer.”

Given the strong bond Mendes has held for years with both Laporta and Deco, those words might well be seen as an indication of what’s to come. It would not be a huge surprise if some sort of ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ was reached last summer, although there is no information to state that definitively. What’s beyond doubt is the Portuguese agent’s influence at the club.

Mendes was — alongside Laporta’s admiration for the footballer — a key player in Joao Felix coming to Barca, despite concerns from some that he would not be a good fit.

Last summer, when Barcelona went to the United States on their pre-season tour, coaching staff sources — speaking anonymously to protect their position, like all those cited here — adamantly rejected the prospect of Joao Felix joining their squad, as rumours began to circulate in the Catalan media. They told The Athletic that his lack of off-the-ball commitment was one of the main reasons they struggled to see him slotting into their system.

A month later, Joao Felix was in Barcelona’s dressing room, with Xavi finally having sanctioned the deal as it was seen as the only viable way to add another offensive option, after the late departures of Ansu Fati and Abde Ezzalzouli. It was Mendes who led Fati’s exit on loan, with his client joining Brighton & Hove Albion and clearing the path for Joao Felix on the left wing.

But if Xavi found his authority diminished in the summer, he is showing his hand now with recent team selections.

Joao Felix was only dropped after that Almeria game, which Barca eventually won 3-2 after a late comeback, but it was a move that had been brewing in Xavi’s plans for weeks. That it didn’t happen sooner probably had a lot to do with the poor form of potential alternatives such as Ferran Torres, and the injuries to Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong.

After the 4-2 defeat by Girona two weeks earlier, well-placed sources revealed members of the coaching staff were already frustrated with Joao Felix’s lack of effort as part of Barca’s pressing unit. It was particularly noticeable for Girona’s first goal, where Joao Felix allowed Girona right-back Yan Couto to easily drive forward with the ball, leaving Barca’s midfield and defensive line exposed.

Within the first-team staff, there was an impression that, despite Joao Felix’s talent, he was unable to give solid performances regularly. Some other well-placed sources around the club believed he only could find the right motivation whenever he felt the necessity.

Joao Felix joined Atletico in a €126m deal from Benfica in 2019 (Siu Wu/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Since getting benched, he has scored the key goal at Betis last weekend, having also impressed against Osasuna in Saudi Arabia and Las Palmas in La Liga a week earlier. Joao Felix’s output has improved, possibly because he knows it has to. He has become a sort of supersub, but this is not the role Barcelona expected he would take.

Returning to play for Atletico also seems unlikely.

Despite Joao Felix signing a deal up until 2029 just before he left on loan last summer, the prospect of him wearing their shirt again became even more remote after that La Liga meeting between the clubs in Barcelona in early December, when he passionately celebrated his winning goal in front of the away fans. Before that match, Atletico players including Antoine Griezmann had spoken critically of Joao Felix’s attitude with the club.

Succeeding at Barcelona feels like a shot Joao Felix can’t miss. He’s already had his crack at the Premier League and was disappointing. There might not be many other top clubs willing to take on his salary if he fails to find the consistency to back up his flashes of talent.

If this loan doesn’t end up working out, his alternatives are limited and a move to Saudi Arabia could be one of the few viable options left.

Joao Felix and Mendes might well want to make Barcelona his permanent home, but to get that deal done, he needs to prove to Xavi that he has more to offer than what we’ve seen so far.

(Top photo: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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