For around sixty minutes at Craven Cottage, Chelsea’s co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali could have been excused for thinking they had pulled off a rare and significant transfer deal in the January window. But within two minutes of his surprise start against Fulham, it was evident that loan signing Joao Felix, who had only completed his move from Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, had not followed the typical script.
Felix sprinted down the right channel to receive a pass from Cesar Azpilicueta and any regular Chelsea watcher would have expected him to slow down, move the ball back inside and maintain possession, waiting for his teammates to join in and create a numerical advantage. Instead, Felix barely broke his stride as he suddenly poked the ball through the legs of Tim Ream and quickly darted beyond him.
The 23-year-old pulled off the nutmeg directly in front of the Chelsea supporters, his improvisational brilliance causing a ripple of thrilled anticipation that has become all too rare for anyone who regularly watches this team.
The nutmeg set the tone for the rest of the game. Joao Felix approached every situation with an unbridled confidence that led Chelsea’s play in exciting new directions and was remarkable considering he had barely trained with his struggling teammates. He formed a particularly natural chemistry with Kai Havertz, initiating smooth give-and-goes with the type of flicks around the corner that haven’t been seen since Eden Hazard left west London three years ago.
Fulham were unable to contain him, defenders Antonee Robinson and Andreas Pereira both received bookings in the first half for clumsily bringing him down as he charged forward, and one sublime flick and spin left Tosin Adarabioyo struggling to keep up with the Portuguese international like a man trying to catch a departing bus.
Felix’s performance was not only stylish but also effective. His constant attacking threat was evident in his six shot attempts, the most any Chelsea attacker has registered in a single Premier League or Champions League match since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang away to Red Bull Salzburg in October. Though most were relatively easy saves for Bernd Leno.
Joao Felix’s attacking play provided a boost to the entire Chelsea team, leading to 14 shots on goal and five on target in just the first half. However, the team’s defense was shaky, with all five of Graham Potter’s starting defenders having a difficult time in the opening 45 minutes.
Trevoh Chalobah and Kalidou Koulibaly made misplaced passes and unforced errors and even Thiago Silva had trouble dealing with the physicality of Carlos Vinicius. Chelsea’s defense led to Fulham’s first goal, as Lewis Hall was dispossessed while trying to dribble out of a dangerous area and Azpilicueta was unable to stop a Willian move.
The game was chaotic at both ends, with Felix’s improvisational play providing hope for a comeback, but Chelsea’s defense was uncertain, giving Fulham regular opportunities to press and score.
Koulibaly’s goal early in the second half justified coach Potter’s decision not to make any substitutions at halftime, and Joao Felix appeared to be the player most likely to score the winning goal. Chelsea’s owners have been monitoring Felix since last summer and believe that other teams such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Barcelona would have readily taken him on.
Despite his contract extension with Atletico Madrid, they would like to buy him if he does well. However, Felix ended up settling the match in a way that added to the absurdity of Chelsea’s season rather than easing any pressure on Potter. His high and late tackle on Kenny Tete earned him a red card, suggesting that the spirit of Diego Simeone may be harder for him to escape than the man himself.
Joao Felix’s red card means that three of the 20 Premier League matches that Chelsea’s owners paid €17 million (€11 million as a loan fee and €6 million to cover his salary) for him to play in, are now lost due to suspension.
Felix effectively becomes another injured first-team player for coach Potter, who already has 11 injured players after Denis Zakaria had to leave the field against Fulham with a quad injury. The number increases to 12 when considering Aubameyang, who was left on the bench during the late chase for an equalizer.