La Liga Lowdown
Vinícius Júnior: Real Madrid’s Diamond In The Rough
Written by Sam Leveridge
In Madrid, in Spain and in world football, few players generate excitement like Vinícius Júnior. The “samba sensation” is the kind of player who gets you on your seat, who engages you to watch the game, to take in every neat touch of footwork, every twist of his hips and collapse to the ground of a bewildered opposition defender.
He’s the kind of player that fans pay to go and watch. He’s the kind of player that could come to define a generation.
“Vinícius is joy, he brings the emotion to the game, he’s full of flair and all about the jogo bonito,” enthuses La Liga Lowdown’s resident Madridista, Has Karim. “He’s a player who gets you off your seat, a player who makes you smile as you watch.” With such fine words on his play, it’s normal for expectations to be high for this talented prospect who has only just left his teenage years behind him.
But it hasn’t always been easy. The story of Vinícius is a long, and initially difficult one.
“He joined the club at the age of five in his local "Flamengo school", his talent stood out very early on,” explains Flamengo fan Marcelo Barreto. It was just there where it all began. Flamengo’s network of 175 ‘schools’ brought in the child who had turned up demanding a trial in São Gonçalo on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
Right from the off, it was immediately evident that Vinícius was a special talent. His first coach, Cacau, recalls how he would play with players above his age group and at the end of the game, they would ask him for his autograph. It all came at a time when he was making a five-hour bus journey each way to training, before his mother saved up to buy a van and cut that journey down to two hours, and they later found a way to move to the other side of Rio, closer to the facilities. His family were not well off, struggling to meet the financial demands of travelling across the city so regularly, but it was a sacrifice that his parents made to help Vinícius to pursue his dream, receiving financial support from Flamengo.
“At this local Flamengo school, he was listed by his dad as a left-back,” Marcelo adds. “In 2009 he tried at Flamengo for the futsal squad but the scouts said he was too young and told him to come back in a year. The following year he tried for the youth football team and was immediately approved to officially join the club.”
It was this link to futsal which still defines his style and way of playing to this very day. Even now, his approach of taking small deft touches, giving him skills and an ability to change direction or twist and turn a defender inside out, are central to his game play. In 2020/21, only three players have taken more touches in the penalty area than the Brazilian. That is built upon the base of his futsal upbringing.
He continued to excel at every level of the game, scoring 23 goals in 25 games for Brazil’s national team at under-15 and under-17 level. His transition to forward had been effective, and it certainly caught the eye at Flamengo. Coaches were keen to manage expectations yet desperate to throw him into the team. In March 2017, he was the star of the show as he scored seven goals to help Brazil win the under-17 South American Championship, being named the best player of the tournament in the process and putting himself well and truly in the spotlight. Flamengo didn’t hang around to give him his debut after that.
“Fans already knew of him when he was playing for the under-17 squad and were excited to see him make the jump directly to the senior squad,” Marcelo remembers, looking back on when Vinícius made his debut in May 2017, a matter of weeks after he returned from that tournament. “He came off the bench for his senior debut and the Maracanã went nuts. He didn't do very well but you could tell he was very nervous.”
From his debut, he would then go on to feature in the next 10 consecutive games. Though he wouldn’t score his first senior goal until August of that year, he was immediately dubbed “the new Neymar” by some, “the new Robinho” by others, and in many respects, it was easy to see why.
“In the years after Neymar’s ascent, there always seemed to be a new player that was dubbed ‘the next Neymar’. Most were busts but I think most people in Brazil realized that Vinícius was actually different and a cut above the rest,” remembers Brazilian football fan Pedro.
But it was only a matter of time before the riches of Europe would be too good to turn down. The teenager’s debut began a wild fortnight in which he would sign a new contract with Flamengo 48 hours after his debut, as rumours swirled that the winger had only agreed to do so because there was a deal with Real Madrid already in place. It boosted his salary and upped his release clause from €30 million to €45 million.
But only another eight days later, the transfer was confirmed. This unknown youngster, with just 17 minutes of first-team action under his belt, was on his way to Real Madrid. And they were paying the full €45 million of his release clause. At the time, it made him the third most expensive teenager ever, only surpassed by Kylian Mbappé and Anthony Martial, both established European players with Champions League experience by the time of their big-money moves. He was following in the footsteps of his idol, Robinho.
“We knew with such skill potential, he would not stay long at Flamengo,” admits Marcelo. “Flamengo fans are extremely happy for his success at Real Madrid and cheer him on when he plays.”
Vinícius would remain in Brazil for another 16 months, racking up 49 appearances for Flamengo’s first team before moving to Madrid. But in his homeland and wearing the sacred yellow-and-green jersey, fans are still waiting to see him at his best. Unfortunate injuries and an overload of talented wingers have made it difficult for him to get into Tite’s national team, making just one appearance for his country despite his high profile. Brazilians are expectant though, and it’s only a matter of time. Much like they eagerly anticipated his Flamengo debut, the hunger to see him star for the Seleção is real.
That excitement generated by the talent of Vinícius is a worldwide phenomenon. When he landed in the Spanish capital, fans weren’t sure what to expect, but looking to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, he became the great unknown and the gamble who could become a superstar. He featured sparingly in pre-season, impressing with his trickery and desire to take players on as he made his Estadio Santiago Bernabéu debut in a friendly against AC Milan. Coach Julen Lopetegui and the club itself were careful not to rush his development though. The decision was taken that he would remain with Real Madrid Castilla, the B team, at least initially.
It didn’t take long for him to prove that he was too good for that level, registering four goals and an assist in five games in Segunda B, including a brace against Atlético Madrid B. “He was clearly a grade above everyone else on the pitch,” recalls Real Madrid supporter and journalist Jamie Donnelly. “Sides really struggled to control him, systematically fouling him throughout the game and even biting him in the head at one point! His ease of going past players made it clear that he could settle into the first team rather quickly.”
Only three weeks later, he made his first team debut, thrown on as a substitute late on in a tense Derbi Madrileño against Atlético’s first team, which ended in a 0-0 draw. After that, he was left out of the matchday squad for the first team just twice until injury struck. While Lopetegui took his time to blood him into the side, the arrival of Santiago Solari in the dugout, the same man who had been in charge of Castilla, proved to be fantastic news for Vinícius.
The Argentinian was a big fan of the Brazilian and it was evident that he would make him a staple fixture in his side. He would feature regularly, and was even selected as a starter against the likes of Sevilla, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona in three of the Clásicos that season, including a Copa del Rey semi-final. Vinícius had made his point in that tournament with an unrivalled seven assists and two goals in eight games. However, his first campaign in the capital came to a painful end in March 2019, hobbling off the field in tears after rupturing his knee ligaments during the first half of Madrid’s crushing Champions League defeat to Ajax. That result capped a below-par season for Madrid by their standards, their first since Ronaldo had left the club for Juventus, but Vinícius had still been one of few bright sparks.
“Simply put, he was Real Madrid’s best player not named Karim Benzema,” Has claims. “It was similar to the impact Adnan Januzaj had when he first came into the Manchester United team, in that he was more important than he should have been in a top team struggling to find rhythm without Cristiano,” agreed Jamie.
Solari himself praised his “spectacular” development over the course of that campaign, saying that “when he arrived, he played like a 17-year-old, now he plays like a 28-year-old.” But question marks remained. For all of the excitement, there was still something missing. He would get fans on the edge of their seat with his dribbling and electric pace, with a remarkable 11 dribbles per game on average, but the end product was missing. In his debut campaign, Vinícius’ xG was almost double his actual goal tally.
Even now, after two seasons in the first team, it remained a concern for many watching his development. His second season would repeat the same xG trait, scoring only 53.3% of the goals expected of him, even lower than the 56.9% he had recorded the year before, so just five goals in 38 appearances in 2019/20.
“Looking at Vinícius' numbers alone doesn't tell the full story. His development from his initial few months has been steady and that's exactly what you would want from a promising young player,” Jamie justifies. “One of the best ways of judging a player is to question if they made the right decision over the execution of their decision. More often, Vinícius is making the right decision. In front of goal, the execution of his finishing certainly has room to improve but he carves out his own and other players’ chances with ease.”
And there’s more to Vinícius’ game than simply converting. He is not, and will never be, a poacher in the box. It’s fair to say he’ll never be a clinical forward who will rank among the top scorers in Europe. But that doesn’t mean he isn't dangerous. As Jamie explains, “Vinícius is a player who will guarantee to get you from the midfield third to the attacking third of the pitch a number of times throughout a game. What happens when he gets into that attacking third is a mystery at the best of times and partly, that's what makes him so exciting.”
“To define Vinícius in a nutshell: for every 10 things he tries, eight will be spectacular and two will be simple things he misses,” agrees Has. It reflects the initial frustrations that Real Madrid fans have had with him. A player of undoubted talent, but just lacking that cutting edge that would make him a world-class player.
“Because he's so remarkably talented, he does have a tendency to put his head down and default to the dribble, even if it's not on,” explains coach and football analyst Scott Martin. “There's this sense that he dribbles to see how far he can go rather than how far he can help the team progress the attack.”
The stats back up that argument. Only 8 players have dribbled more in La Liga in 2020/21, but only 36.4% of his dribbles are completed. For context, João Félix completes a very similar number of dribbles per game and averages a 50% success rate, while for Vinícius’ team-mate Marco Asensio, it’s 52.6%.
Still, Real Madrid fans remain faithful. Of that percentage of completed dribbles, 41.8% end in a shot. He’s a player who has all that is required to kick on and to establish himself as one of the top talents not only in Spain, but in the world.
And he is making improvements. In 2020/21, not only has his xG soared from 0.3 to 0.52 per game, but he is more or less matching the xG expected of him with goals for the very first time. Even last season, when he woefully underscored, it was more because of a handful of big chances missed rather than regular failings. In fact, he only failed to match xG expectations in two games last season and both by a small margin. In just five games in 2020/21, he has already matched his 2018/19 goal tally and is close to surpassing last season’s figures too.
It reflects the attitude of a player determined to make it to the top. Taking on the same personal trainer used by Neymar, Thiago Lobo, and copying many of Cristiano Ronaldo’s routines, he has transformed himself physically to gain muscle and dedicates the same amount of time and effort on the training field. “Vinícius is a player who only has winning on his mind and he’s proven that with the development of his game,” insists Emily Wilson, Real Madrid fan and journalist.
That approach is what leaves fans optimistic for the future. Even when he might not be hitting the heights of world-class talents in terms of goals, he serves a clear and important purpose. “In a current Real Madrid side that lacks creativity, bar Karim Benzema, the Brazilian fills a big gap in the squad,” Emily adds. “I wouldn’t count him out from leading the attack in the years to come, given the qualities he has.”
In recent times, the comparisons to his compatriot Neymar have died down. “Every young Brazilian star is hyped up. Especially post-Neymar people expect a similar player to light up Europe as soon as they touch down. Vini is not going to be Neymar but he’s still a solid player who plays his role for Real Madrid,” Pedro adds.
But that won’t stop many Real Madrid fans getting carried away. Including our man, Has: “Vinícius isn't a normal prospect. His talent is exceptional, few players can do what he does. I truly believe he has the capability to be the team’s talisman. The man in the big moments, the real successor to Cristiano Ronaldo.”
In March 2020, in the penultimate outing before Covid-19 brought Spanish football to a halt, Vinícius enjoyed his finest moment yet in a Real Madrid shirt. Cutting inside from wide, he scored the opening goal in a Clásico which would go on to define the LaLiga title. It was his biggest and most decisive moment in a white shirt. It was his way of saying “I’m here” and it worked.
Now, Vinícius faces a return to this fixture. A return in the best form of his career, having scored in back-to-back LaLiga games for the first time this season and then smashing the Champions League record for the quickest goal by a substitute at just 14 seconds against Shakhtar Donetsk. Injuries are keeping Eden Hazard out of the side and giving the 20-year-old his chance to stake his claim as first choice. It’s not an opportunity that he’s willing to let pass by.
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