Point proven: The emergence of Vinícius Júnior at Real Madrid
There was an eerie similarity between the goal scored by Vinícius Júnior against Osasuna and the one he scored against Sevilla this season. In both instances, the young Brazilian shimmied in from the left, beating his man before curling a spectacular effort beyond the keeper and into the top corner.
Where these two moments contrast entirely is the difference in perception. The Vini that scored against Osasuna was enduring his most turbulent time yet with Los Blancos, booed on occasion, heckled in the media and seemingly out of favour with then coach Zinedine Zidane.
As the winger celebrated his goal, he became overwhelmed with emotion, breaking down into tears on the famed Estadio Santiago Bernabéu turf. As the season progressed, so too did the questions about the Brazilian’s ability to be a star player at Real Madrid. There were rumblings of loan moves, the signing of Eden Hazard and preference to Rodrygo Goes.
Vinícius’ journey in the Spanish capital has been one of peaks and troughs. Signed as a teenager for a lofty €45 million fee, there was an element of the unknown about the youngster. Brazilian football fan Louis Smith (@louissmith22) detailed just how much hype was surrounding Vini in his homeland, explaining that “from a young age, his previous coaches and managers have always said how exceptional he was and how he stood out against the rest. From age 10 he joined the Flamengo setup, and three years later he was playing for Brazil’s under 15 side.”
However, it was at the 2017 Copinha that Vini truly stood out: “In Brazil’s Copinha, an under-20 tournament that includes over 100 teams, Vinicius terrorised his opponents with the pace and trickery that he shows today, despite being three years younger than some of them.”
“Normally, eyebrows are not raised during these tournaments, as players are simply too young, but with his traits of pace, skill and finishing ability, it was hard for people not to get excited about the youngster.”
That daring and teasing style that Vini tore through Brazil with was something that he carried into his maiden campaign with Madrid. Given his first start for the club under Santiago Solari against Melilla in the Copa del Rey, his bravery on the ball was a welcome change, but his lack of composure in the box was immediately apparent.
The numbers also supported Vini’s struggle with shooting. Across 2018/19 and 2019/20, he fired off 80 shots in LaLiga alone, with an xG of 8.15, but he scored just 4 goals. However, the talent was clear for both Real fans and fans of rival clubs to see.
La Liga Lowdown’s Sam Leveridge (@samleveridge) highlighted the rawness but clear potential of the Brazilian from his debut appearance as a substitute in the Madrid derby under Julen Lopetegui. “It was terrifying because Atleti had Juanfran at right-back and on came this lightning quick winger who could beat him for pace without breaking a sweat,” Sam explained. “He was clearly still incredibly raw, but there were glimpses that Vinícius would be a pain in Atleti’s side for quite a few years to come.”
Even from a Barcelona perspective, it had been noted that whilst he was certainly a gem which needed polishing, there was huge potential as highlighted by Domagoj Kostanjšak (@DKostanjsak): “Well, the talent was clearly visible right from the start. Some of his main qualities were on show and people were quick to draw comparisons to other tricky, pacy Brazilians. He had a mean dribble but was mostly unrestrained and erratic, to the point he came as a package with clear pros but also clear cons as well. But that's normal for a young talent debuting on the grandest stages of them all. Flaws were not only unsurprising, they were expected.”
Coming into the 2021/22 season, with Vini’s potential already known, he needed to add end product to avoid patience wearing thin. Throughout the summer, there had been reports of him being offered to a variety of clubs, following links to loan moves just a few months prior.
There had even been concerns from his native Brazil that he could see himself become a peripheral player at the club, and Louis mentioned a growing concern about whether he had made the jump to Europe too early: “People were worried that he was going to become another player who has not been given a chance to adapt to a new country and that they were right about not letting him develop in the Brasileirão before making the move to Europe.”
Carlo Ancelotti had highlighted the importance of the Brazilian, openly saying in press conferences that he was working closely with him to improve his patchy finishing. He did start the first two games of the season on the bench, although, much to the surprise of many, he scored three goals across the two games against Alavés and Levante.
Was there a turn in fortunes around the corner? It certainly seemed to be the case. Come the fifth game of the season, he had moved from impact sub to starter, and more impressively, he had scored five goals.
The question for both Real Madrid supporters and rival fans: ‘was this a purple patch or has Vini finally levelled up?’ Much like Thanos, had the Brazilian finally gotten that final infinity stone to make him the complete attacking weapon Florentino splashed €45 million on?
“He’s seen as a real Jekyll and Hyde kind of player. You never know which Vinícius is going to turn up; the one who can single-handedly defeat any side in LaLiga, or the one who will have no end product and only stand out when he gets frustrated and gets himself booked needlessly,” Sam Leveridge believes.
Sam continued: “He was something of a laughing stock for a while, as rival fans enjoyed seeing how so much expectation was being put on to a young teenager who couldn’t finish if his life depended on it, but this season he’s been taken a lot more seriously across the board.”
Vini’s form has continued through the season and has not been isolated to LaLiga. His mazy run and sublime finish against Shakhtar Donetsk had Madridistas genuinely beginning to believe this could be the season he finally breaks through.
Scoring is not the only addition to his game either. Statistically, he is right up there creatively within the Real Madrid setup. At the time of writing, he is second to only Karim Benzema for assists in LaLiga for Real Madrid, third overall for key passes per 90, top for dribbles completed and third for total key passes made.
The Brazil international has combined the daredevil attacking style that raised eyebrows in the Copinha and added the much-needed end product, making him the devastating force that is topping metric charts throughout Europe.
His numbers continue to make for impressive reading. He is one of only four players to have completed 30+ dribbles, chances created and tackles made in Europe’s top five leagues, whilst his 25 goal contributions is a higher number more than his previous three seasons combined.
Vini always had the X-factor, he emerged at a Real Madrid in crisis, highlighted by Real Madrid supporter Muddassir Hussain (@mudassirjourno): “His debut campaign is one I’ll never forget. The kid lit up the Bernabéu after Cristiano left; we’re talking about a hole the shape of our record goalscorer, and the greatest goalscorer ever. To fill that hole and be the lone spark for Real Madrid of all clubs throughout the season, as a teenager, is just so huge.”
“We’re finally seeing what he can do. This is just the start. His overall game was always devastating, now he’s got the end product to match. We’re talking about a monster in the making.”
The narrative has shifted on Vini Jr. He has gone from Karim Benzema openly telling teammates not to pass to him, to arguably usurping Real Madrid’s star striker at times this season. From jeers and calls for moves out of the team, to fears over his long-term future following the signing of Eden Hazard - Vini has battled back and done so in the most emphatic fashion.
Whilst Real are linked continually with superstars such as Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé, Vini has firmly staked his position as a cornerstone of Los Blancos for many years to come.
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