Bruno Lage says he is the only man to have coached every age-group side in the Benfica academy, as well as the Benfica B team that plays in Liga 2, and, of course, the first team in one of the club’s greatest seasons. – the league title of 2018-2019. That triumph is remembered for one player above all: that rare talent, Joao Felix.
Chelsea’s loan signing from Atlético Madrid, who sparkled on his debut for the club at Craven Cottage on January 12, before that unexpected red card, is back in action on Saturday after a three-game suspension. In the intervening 22 days, Chelsea have broken the British transfer record amid the biggest January spend in history and Felix comes back into a side that has changed considerably. The memory of his first 60 minutes in English football, however, remains strong.
Among those watching from afar was Lage, Wolverhampton Wanderers manager until October, who launched the career of the 23-year-old now regarded as the man to succeed Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal’s greatest talent.
There is some competition for that title, and Lage has coached many of them in his time. Bernardo Silva was in his Benfica Under-11s side; Ederson and Joao Cancelo in his Under-15s; and Ruben Dias was part of the senior team that won Liga. Speaking to Telegraph Sports this week Lage recalls that moment four years ago last month when he was given the caretaker role at Benfica and inherited one of the club’s finest young players.
They worked together for just six months, but what a time it was. Felix was the crown jewel in a Benfica side that took 55 points from a possible 57 in the second half of the season to beat Porto to the title by two points. Felix left for Atlético that summer for €126 million (£113 million) – the second highest fee ever paid for a teenager. His fortunes in Spain in the years that followed were rather more mixed.
Back in January 2019, the first thing Lage did was change Benfica’s system. “That was my first feeling,” he said. “They played 4-3-3 and I changed to 4-4-2 because that was the right system for Joao,” he says. Up to that point Felix, who had been injured, had played just eight games in what would be his only full season in the Benfica first team. In Lage’s first game, Felix scored two in a 4-2 win over Rio Ave, and never looked back.
“He’s not a No. 10,” Lage says. “He’s not one to play behind the striker. I prefer to call him the ‘free striker’. He needs to play with a more orthodox striker who is in the box, a guy that Joao can find with passes. Joao plays between the lines, and in the space behind a defense. Him and [Swiss striker, Haris] Seferovic in that second half of the season – they were very good.”
Very good indeed – the pair finished with 36 league goals between them. Felix, only just 19, scored 18 in all competitions and 16 of them came in the five months he played under Lage. “The mentality of the player is important,” says Lage. “It was natural for Joao, the training, the ability to play in the rhythm of the first team and with the older players. They accepted him quickly. The senior players know how important the academy is to the club, so they look after the young players.”
Felix was the fifth-choice striker when Lage took over. By April, when he scored a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, he was one of the hottest properties in Europe. Lage remembers a boy very much at home at the club who would walk to the training ground from his digs half a mile away. He had been there since the age of 14 after a period at Porto. Some claim Porto released him, others that he had left of his own accord. Either way, Benfica had a player who was in huge demand.
The Felix question was occupying another senior figure at the club. Tiago Pinto was just 32 when he was asked to step up to become the club’s director of football having previously managed the other sports teams competing under the Benfica banner. The acceleration in Felix’s form from January 2019 onwards meant that the club faced tough decisions sooner than expected.
Pinto is now the sporting director at Roma in Serie A. He admits he was initially reluctant to speak when Telegraph Sports called but he makes an exception in this case. “I know what happened at Atlético and with the red card [against Fulham] it’s not a good moment for him [Felix], but, man, this guy is a genius and a very humble person. He’s not a normal footballer. There is a lot of natural talent and a high confidence in himself. He makes everything seem very easy.
“We had a video at Benfica which we always used to laugh at – it was Joao’s first touch as a first team player. Most teenagers would just not want to make a mistake but he did something really artistic. It’s in his nature. His mother and father were both teachers, a very good family. They knew the boy was very talented but they always wanted him to get his education.”
The memories from Pinto of this young player, who had moved from his family home in Viseu, a three hour plus drive away, to lodge with Benfica, are of a kid whom they only ever saw wearing his training kit. “Benfica shorts, Benfica T-shirt, eating with his friends from the academy in the canteen,” he says. “At home he was always playing football like it was something he had to do with his body. For him it was very, very natural.”
At the time as his manager, Lage was outspoken about Felix’s immediate future: he said Felix should stay another year at Benfica. “It was going to be difficult for him to leave Benfica and have another kind of status,” Lage says now. “I understand it was a large amount of money – €126 million. Then that was like that [transfer income] money for three years at Benfica. In that period my opinion was: it is not about moving on – it is about the changes to your life.
“He was a young man, just 19. He would walk from training to school, having lunch in the club canteen. The next minute you are in another club in another city. You are not considered young anymore. You are the main man and the player they spent €126 million on.”
Lage points out that Felix’s time at Atlético has by no means been a failure. He has played more than 130 games, won a Liga title and last season he was voted player of the season by the fans. His subsequent fallout with Diego Simeone seems to have come just as he was establishing himself as a key man of the team. Even so, it feels like there was something right about Lage’s instincts back in the summer of 2019 when every major club in Europe was interested.
Pinto recalls a transfer like no other. “It was a really high level between the two club presidents and [agent] Jorge Mendes and eventually it was €126 million, which was the buyout clause. Now people say, ‘Oh, maybe Atlético wasn’t right for him, there were other clubs interested’. At the time, it was something that happened so fast and I am sure that Atlético wanted to convince him that they were the right place.
“Maybe Joao was too young but he was doing things that were so special and the whole world was looking at him. When you look at Joao, he is a technical, dynamic player. I don’t want to be that guy who says now that he would have been better off at Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City. In the end it was everybody’s decision.
A sense of what might have been. Benfica struggled to replicate their form the next season and Lage was sacked. Pinto is in no doubt that Chelsea and Graham Potter would be a good match for Felix. “He just needs the right context. He needs a coach and technical staff who like him and protect him. Sometimes these guys need someone to treat them a bit differently.”
Lage says that Felix’s progress demonstrated the power of Benfica’s academy. The club made a decision from around 2012 to make developing players a priority. It has yielded stunning results. Lage’s own record with young players is very good too, and his pride at the development of Max Kilman at Wolves is just as great as it is for those other Portuguese luminaries he helped along the way.
“A young player has to accept that if they work hard they will get a place in the team,” Lage says. “And the manager has to give him a proper opportunity. Not just one game to show everything you can do. Like with Joao, you need the time to be calm and play in games the same way that you train every day.”