Chelsea signed Joao Felix to ease pressure on Graham Potter – debut red card has raised it
For the best part of an hour at Craven Cottage, Chelsea co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali could have been forgiven for concluding they had managed to pull off the kind of genuinely transformative deal that rarely happens in the January transfer market.
Just two minutes into his surprise start against Fulham, it was clear that loan signing Joao Felix, who only completed his move from Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, had not read the standard script. He sprinted into the right channel to latch onto a Cesar Azpilicueta pass down the line and any regular Chelsea watcher knew what to expect next: decelerate, check back inside and keep possession, waiting for team-mates to arrive to create numerical superiority.
Joao Felix instead barely broke 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 travelling Chelsea supporters, his improvisational brilliance causing a ripple of thrilled anticipation that has become painfully rare for anyone who regularly watches this team.
It set the tone for what followed. He approached his every involvement with an uninhibited confidence that took Chelsea’s passages of play in bold new directions and belied the fact he had barely trained with his struggling team-mates. He formed a particularly easy chemistry with Kai Havertz, initiating slick give-and-goes with the kind of flicks around the corner barely seen since Eden Hazard left west London three years ago.
Fulham could do nothing with him. Antonee Robinson and Andreas Pereira were both booked in the first half for clumsily bringing him down as he raced into home territory, while one sublime flick and spin left Tosin Adarabioyo labouring in the wake of the Portugal international like a man frantically trying to chase down a departing bus.
There was substance to go with the style. Joao Felix’s constant attacking threat was underlined by 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. The majority were relatively comfortable saves for Bernd Leno though.
Chelsea as a team were revitalised by Joao Felix in attack, registering 14 shots at goal and five on target in just the first half. But it was built on a foundation of sand; every one of Graham Potter’s five starting defenders endured nightmares in the opening 45 minutes. Trevoh Chalobah and Kalidou Koulibaly blended misplaced passes with unforced errors and even Thiago Silva struggled mightily to deal with the physical presence of Carlos Vinicius.
Fulham’s opening goal directly followed mistakes from Chelsea’s wing-backs. Lewis Hall was dispossessed trying to dribble his way out of a dangerous area, then Azpilicueta was unable to stop a Willian move he has surely seen in training at Cobham thousands of times: a momentary pause, a quick shift to the right and a shot that deflected in off Chalobah’s leg.
Anarchy flourished at both ends of the pitch. Joao Felix’s freewheeling initiative provided constant hope of a comeback, but an anxious uncertainty prevailed in Chelsea’s defence, giving regular encouragement to a Fulham side as happy to press as they were to pass.
Koulibaly’s scrambled equaliser early in the second half vindicated Potter’s decision not to make any substitutions at the interval, and the man likeliest to settle the match was Joao Felix: a player Chelsea’s owners have monitored closely since last summer, a player they feel Arsenal, Manchester United and Barcelona would have taken in a heartbeat, a player they would like to buy if he does well despite his contract extension with Atletico Madrid.
Joao Felix did settle the match, but in a way that lends more absurdity to the tragicomedy that is Chelsea’s season rather than easing any pressure on Potter. His high and late tackle on Kenny Tete, earning him only the second red card of his professional career, suggested the spirit of Diego Simeone may be harder for him to escape than the man himself.
Joao Felix was sent off for this lunge on Tete (Photo: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)
It means that three of the 20 Premier League matches Chelsea’s owners paid €17million — €11million as a loan fee and €6million to cover his salary in full — for Joao Felix to play in are now lost to suspension.
He effectively becomes another injured first-team player for Potter; there are 11 of those after Denis Zakaria limped off against Fulham with a problem in the top of his quad. The number reaches 12 if you include Aubameyang, who was left on the bench during the late chase for an equaliser.
Losing a man at 1-1 did not ensure a seventh Premier League defeat of the season. More hapless defending did that, coupled with Kepa Arrizabalaga once again misjudging the passage of a ball across his penalty area, having failed to cut out Jack Grealish’s low cross to Riyad Mahrez against Manchester City last week. It is difficult to blame Potter for such individual errors when his tactical setup made sense and Chelsea won the expected goals (xG) comfortably — 0.7-2.1.
He is not responsible for the issues he inherited from Thomas Tuchel and a summer of scattergun recruitment, or the disruption of an unprecedented mid-season World Cup and the debilitating effects of a massive injury crisis.
Yet football is a funny sport where negative events can gain momentum, colliding and snowballing to the point where causes and context recede and all that is left is the sense that change is inevitable.
Potter is fundamentally the same coach Chelsea hired to helm a long-term project in September. Still, coaches who look this helpless in the face of unfavourable circumstances typically have a low survival rate. Boehly and Clearlake have been consistent and unwavering in their backing, but the extent of their resolve cannot be known until it is thoroughly stress-tested.
That moment could arrive with Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge on Sunday — with Joao Felix, the man who briefly looked capable of changing everything, reduced to just another spectator.
(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)