In 19th-century Russian literature there was a recurrent figure known as The Superfluous Man. The Superfluous Man was talented, aimless, wealthy and pretty much redundant in society. He wrote poetry and wore finely stitched britches. He lounged on silken pouffes and was pointlessly good at pointless things. The world coddled and cosseted him. But it didn’t need him any more.
It isn’t hard to find a few of these, our own Superfluous Men, in modern day football. This has been a constant note in the last year, the trend for a certain type of player, individualists with non-standard skills, to find themselves marginalised. And not just marginalised, but demonised too, with a sense they are somehow being deliberately effete and decadent. So we hear that Paul Pogba is lazy. Riyad Mahrez is decorative and brittle, a kind of wedding cake figurine in football boots. Mesut Özil doesn’t want to play, but is instead intent on bankrupting Arsenal Football Club.
The reality is of course different. The problem Pogba faces, for example, is tactical. He has become outmoded as an elite midfielder, a poor fit for the current vogue for high-energy, hard-pressing football. Gini Wijnaldum, for example, has taken 15 steps, played a zippy give-and-go, and blocked three separate avenues of attack in the time it takes Pogba to measure one delightful lofted pass, or glide into an unexpected pocket of space. The same goes for Mahrez and Özil: high-grade footballers whose failings in certain forms of team-play are now deemed to outweigh their super-strengths in dribbling and passing.
These are our own Superfluous Football Men, grand talents out of step with the times, and struggling to find a middle way. This is a sadness in itself. Fitful and disappointing creative players have been a pleasure for as long as football has been played. Worse, there is some talk that the classic attacking No 10 may now be a thing of the past, squeezed to the margins by the demands of the collective and the power-game.
Happily, football is a resilient thing. It consolidates and finds new forms. This is all a roundabout way of getting on to the best-kept non-secret in European football, the most exciting young footballer everyone has already heard of, a £110m signing who still feels like something we might jinx with too much talk. Curious about the next generation? Enter João Félix, who turned 21 this week, scored his seventh goal in five games and has begun to look like he’s heading for another level entirely.
It has been a recent spurt of progress. Félix moved to Atlético Madrid from Benfica for an absurd amount of money last summer. He struggled to settle. He was a mooching teenager, a punt on talent, and a deal brokered and feasted upon by Jorge Mendes. It was tempting to feel vindicated in feeling sceptical. In March he turned up at Anfield and spent 110 minutes looking boyish and lost, like the nerd in a high school movie comedy forced to share a summer camp dorm with the jocks. Right up until the moment Félix killed the game with his 23rd touch, a wonderful no-look pass to set up the decisive goal. On a night of pre-plague confusion it was a small moment of illumination. Oh. This is actually real.
Fast forward to the current season and Félix has been brilliant. This is a new Atlético, built out of the wreckage of summer 2019, when the armature of the previous team left, and prelude to a league season when Atlético finished third, but also drew 16 matches and struggled to score. Diego Simeone has named Luis Suárez as the driving force behind his more attacking style. Diego knows his boys. But he’s also not going to single out the kid. And the kid has been sensational, not just scoring goals, but funnelling everything, directing every midfield movement.
This is high pressure playmaking too. Félix may be slight and tricksy, but he has become a relentless team presence. Watch the win against Granada and he’s like some horrible little dervish, constantly coming short and spinning, defining the rhythms of the game from an advanced No 10 position. And yes: lads, it’s Granada. But Félix was the same chasing the game in the 1-1 draw at Lokomotiv Moscow. Most recently he was sublime in a 4-0 defeat of Cádiz, who hadn’t conceded for three matches, but were delicately steamrollered at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Other good things: he does stuff other players can’t. There’s a dip of the shoulder, low to the ground, and a surge of speed that is reminiscent – sacrilege, this – of Ronaldinho running Ashley Cole into the ground in Shizuoka in 2002, something that barely happened before or since.
Like all the best midfielders Félix is always looking at everything. Watch his second goal against Cádiz in slow motion and he seems to be scanning the horizon for seabirds, even as he drops the ball off his chest at a full sprint and wallops it into the corner. It is of course a great treat to have a new top-class creative footballer to watch. No offence, Lionel. But it has been 16 years now. And João Félix really is good enough to be in the next tier of golden ball hopefuls.
For now the most interesting thing is his style, the way he seems to bring balance to the force as a creative attacker. This is how you do all that, play as a No 10, not a new-style inside forward, but put your shoulder to the collective effort.
Félix never stops moving. He bounces up rather than take the fouls on offer. But he is also fun, and winsome and off-the-cuff, a one-man argument that there is still a way to make this way of playing work, perhaps even to redeem football’s own Superfluous Man.