Along the Road to Paris, Vinícius Júnior Becomes a Superstar
Much like Vinícius Júnior himself, blink and you miss it could also describe the apparent metamorphosis of his career that took place last summer.
The Brazilian signed off last season at Real Madrid with mixed reviews. His detractors filed a lack of end product as their main grievance, which contained within it a general discontent for his decision-making on the pitch. After scoring three goals in his first five games of 2020-21, his following 44 games produced only three goals and four assists. He didn’t directly contribute to a goal in any of his final 12 games of the season.
Vinícius did a lot of things well, especially for a then-20-year-old. The shirt is heavy in Madrid though, and an attacking player of his nature is always bound to live and die by his goals and assists – particularly in the pressure cooker of the capital. In a post-Ronaldo world, the club couldn’t afford to drift for too long, and there would always be an underlying angst until they knew for sure where their hopes of the future could be placed. Vinícius went into the off-season still to be resolved.
On the other side of it emerged a player cut for the grandeur of the Santiago Bernabéu and more. It took the Brazilian just 11 games to devour his goal and assist tally from the previous season, and the same time to completely rewrite the book on Vinícius Júnior. From an agitator to a killer, defenders who showed him inside last season did so now only if they didn’t fear the wrath of their goalkeeper.
How did that happen?
Maybe he had always been close. Maybe he was just processing his teenage mistakes. Maybe he needed Carlo Ancelotti. Maybe it was just the natural progression of a young footballer, which had been blurred by all that surrounds the behemoth of Real Madrid. The theories are endless, and the pursuit of precision is unforgiving. Even his manager gave it up pretty early. “I didn’t do anything with Vinícius,” Ancelotti explained of his form last October.
How we got here has since been long forgotten. Real Madrid and Vinícius have been too busy, wrestling back control of La Liga from city rivals Atlético and toppling giant after giant on the way back to the one they really want. At the Stade de France on Saturday night, Los Blancos will hunt down their 14th European Cup, propelled by a graduate superstar who now knows what it means to be Real.
The 21-year-old made a scorching start to the 2021-22 season, and not only in volume of goals and assists. There were some important ones in there, the game-swinging type, which helped to push Real Madrid to the top of the league and ignite the ilusión that so intoxicates the Bernabéu.
Of course, Vinícius’ fast start came with a lot of front-page recognition. Stars sell papers in Madrid. For the more analytical wing, however, it was followed by a period of scepticism in which they had to temper their excitement and wait a little longer, just to see how permanent it was. Had Vinícius really become one of the best wingers in the world this quickly, or was he still the work in progress just running hot for a while? It was a fair question then.
The answer would be provided month by month, competition by competition, from August until May. On the cusp of the Champions League final, his season has been comprised of 51 appearances, 21 goals and 16 assists – a haul that has only been matched by what is essentially a 2022 Ballon d’Or shortlist. His performances have helped to flash Real Madrid back into ‘win now’ mode, evaporating the doubts that could have been disruptive in the years after Cristiano Ronaldo.
The most attractive part for the club, however, must surely come through the stage of Vinícius’ career in which he has joined the top rank.
The Brazilian won’t turn 22 until the other side of the Champions League final, by which time he may have helped spearhead a domestic and European double for Real Madrid, along with a Supercopa. Let’s leave the hypotheticals to the side for a moment though. In La Liga – where they have already sealed the title – Vinícius has been the most determining attacking player not named Karim Benzema. His teammate has been without equal, playing at the impossible level which the autumn of a career sometimes unlocks. Benzema is smarter than ever, more comfortable than ever, and seemingly more determined than ever, exercising a level of control over attacking matters which only Lionel Messi has been able to reproduce in recent times in La Liga.
Along with the obvious role differences, Vinícius is 12 years younger than Benzema. His prime years will likely be dictated by his physical evolution, but there are many more lessons to be learned on the ascent towards his own autumn. If his teammate Benzema was untouchable this season, then his output in La Liga for players in his age bracket was perhaps the most remarkable signature of his breakout campaign.
After last season’s inconsistency, Vinícius was directly involved in 27 goals in 2,699 minutes in La Liga this term. Excluding penalties, his per-90 average (0.9) was the highest single season figure by a player aged 21 or under since 2008-09, following Lionel Messi (1.11) and Gonzalo Higuaín (0.95). That was Messi’s first season as a prolific scorer and creator at the top level, as well as Higuaín’s breakout campaign in European football. Nobody had come close to them since, until now.
The distinction is that Vinícius is a very different player to what Messi and Higuaín were. Messi was erupting as the unrestrained attacking force that would go on to dominate world football, while Higuaín was a centre forward drafted in for Real Madrid’s post-Raúl era. Vinícius’ path to becoming a decisive player has been on the back of developing his repertoire as a pure winger.
What began as flashes from an excitable and typically Brazilian winger has, over the course of his 117 appearances for Real Madrid, become talent that is more applicable to the realities of his role and responsibility. This was always going to be the case for a player leaving Brazil and landing in Madrid just after his 18th birthday, even if the transfer fee in the region of 40 million euros did hint towards Vinícius being something more than a South American export of mere potential. The question was whether he would realise it, and if he did, how quickly it would happen.
In his fourth season in Madrid – but first as an intocable in the starting XI – Vinícius has run viewers through his expanded repertoire on an almost weekly basis. Think of all the things a full back least wants to see, and that’s essentially what the Brazilian’s game now entails. Give-and-go’s, stop-start dribbles, ability to go both sides of defenders, searing pace, runs beyond the last line, runs between defenders, and perhaps most concerning of all, a rapidly expanding level of confidence. It’s a metaphor for Vinícius’ personality in that his worst period of the last two seasons came while playing in an empty Alfredo Di Stéfano stadium, and his best in front of sizable crowds at the Santiago Bernabéu, among many others.
What Vinícius is capable of, between his physical and technical attributes, will always have an effect on a football pitch. Whether it’s an early-round Copa del Rey game or the late stages of the Champions League, defenders in 50 years’ time will still be uncomfortable in the face of such qualities in an individual. What Vinícius possesses in the emotional sense, as has become clear this season, is the elixir that transforms a player for Real Madrid into a Real Madrid player. He understands how his individual game can animate the Bernabéu and embraces the bright lights. He lets the crowd know when to raise the volume, whether it’s through a piercing dribble or by his own gestures of encouragement towards them.
For the feared dribbler he has become, Vinícius’ efficiency in actually beating his man is lower than one might expect. Between La Liga and the Champions League this season, he has completed just 41% of his take-ons, of which he has attempted 7.3 per 90. His likely opposite number in Paris, Luis Díaz, has completed 63% of his take-on attempts across the two competitions since joining Liverpool, albeit averaging five attempts per 90.
If there’s a takeaway, it’s not that Vinícius is an inefficient dribbler. The Brazilian has conquered more by volume (which naturally affects his success rate), putting defenders through repeated efforts over the course of a game and hunting for the lapses in concentration of fatigued minds and legs. Facing him in a fresh state is difficult; facing him after 70 minutes is much worse.
This is perhaps one of Vinícius’ most understated traits: the ability to keep his foot on the gas deep into games. Despite the physical demands on modern players – as well as the fact the 21-year-old’s game is heavy in repetitive, high-intensity runs – he has averaged 82 minutes per appearance across all competitions this term. He was only off the pitch for 10 of the 240 minutes in the quarter-final and semi-final second legs that went to extra time, and provided the assist for the winning goal against Chelsea in the former.
Vinícius’ driving style of play has had a big influence on Real Madrid this season across all competitions, but particularly so in their Champions League run. Los Blancos have averaged 43% possession in the knockout stages this season, and slightly more for the tournament as a whole (51%). The combination of Ancelotti’s balanced style, their long since abandoned pressing, and the fact that their three midfielders are all in their 30s, means Real Madrid aren’t in the business of going punch for punch all over the pitch. Were it not for the presence of Vinícius, however, their deeper starting positions would be more problematic.
Take, for example, his goal in the semi-final first leg against Manchester City. With Real Madrid on the ropes and Pep Guardiola’s side dominating territory at the Etihad, Vinícius’ solo run from inside his half to finish past Ederson was a moment of divine intervention, and one that only he could have produced for the away side. It was the release valve that Real Madrid needed in a precarious moment, just minutes after Phil Foden had made it 3-1 and when the next goal was vital. The Brazilian’s contribution throughout the tournament has meant his side can still retain an attacking threat, even when they’re far from goal.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side are likely to follow the same script in Paris. When they have the ball, they will try keep it. When they don’t, they’ll be economical in their pressure and look to seize on the spaces left by an aggressive Liverpool side, led by the sting of Vinícius. Real Madrid have already chopped down Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City en-route to the main event, and they’ll be confident in their methods working one more time.
For Vinícius, the recent news of Kylian Mbappé’s contract extension with PSG adds an interesting dimension to Saturday’s final. The end of his long-standing links with Real Madrid are over, which has significant implications for the Brazilian. In the event that Mbappé joined this summer, his playing situation would have been impacted on an individual level, whether it be having to shift out to the right side of the 4-3-3 or adapt to a new system that prioritises the Frenchman. Vinícius’ trajectory as a 21-year-old on the back of a breakout season would have been altered to some degree.
Instead, he will now go in search of a third trophy of the season, knowing victory would place him as a catalyst of a La Liga and Champions League double – a grand achievement, even for Real Madrid. Vinícius doesn’t need to lift another trophy to ensure his place at the forefront the club’s future, but capping off his season with the most tangible glory would go some way towards soothing those who were scorned by Mbappé’s decision.
If one thing’s for sure, Vinícius starring and lifting the European Cup in Paris – Mbappé’s city – would make life very easy for the Madrid media.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.