Football Features

Vinícius Júnior: How Real Madrid’s nearly man became a goal guarantee

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 12:10, 19 November 2021

When Vinícius Júnior joined Real Madrid, he had it all. Well, nearly. His all-round game was fantastic. Dribbling second to none. Pace better than any of his opponents. Skill which was unrivalled. No-one could keep up with him. But every time he came to the final third, he would slip up. Until now.

Under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, the change in his game has been magnificent. With nine goals and seven assists, he’s already surpassed his best goals tally and matched his best assists tally in just 16 games, only a third of the number of appearances he made in the 2020/21 season with Zinedine Zidane.

The turnaround has been truly remarkable. In 2020/21, he underperformed xG by a remarkable 3.82. For context, that’s twice as bad as anyone else in the Real Madrid squad. In 2021/22, he’s overperforming by 2.04 xG, a figure more than twice as good as anyone else, excluding Karim Benzema. Benzema-dependencia, as the Spanish media like to call Real Madrid’s reliance on Karim Benzema for goals, is no more.

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In fact, Vinícius scored five in La Liga’s opening five games. By matchday six, he’d already been involved in eight goals and was stepping up as one of LaLiga’s most influential players, while also racking up six goal involvements in four Champions League appearances.

Injuries have played their part. Rodrygo Goes, Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale have all struggled with fitness issues, while Vinícius has shone on the field while staying fit. While all three have had long-term issues, Vini has only missed one game since May 2019, but his improvements have gone far beyond just keeping fit.

“I do extra work at the end of every training session; [Zinedine] Zidane pulls me to one side to work on my finishing, and the other players also give me pointers and advice,” he told Brazilian newspaper O Globo in 2019, although the real step up in his game has come under the arrival of Ancelotti.

“I think Vinícius has a lot of quality in one-on-ones,” the Italian coach said after the 21-year-old single-handedly tore apart Alavés. “I’ve told him that to score goals he has to take one or two touches, it’s difficult to score with four or five touches. He’s a very young player, he’s going to improve.”

That analysis is the perfect summary. This season, Vinícius is more incisive and clinical, no longer doubting, hesitating or waiting for that split second that makes all the difference. While in both 2019/20 and 2020/21 he made an average of 1.2 shots per 90 minutes, the number has risen to 2.8 per 90 in 2021/22. Much of that is down purely to confidence and a greater sense of urgency in Real Madrid’s play.

“What I most like about him is that he tries it whenever he can, he’s a very intense player. Now you can see his quality, he works a lot, he accelerates and carries the ball with intensity,” Ancelotti added just over a month later. “He has to improve off the ball, but he can do it because he’s a humble player who likes to work.”

The harsh truth is that more hard work is needed. Consistency remains an issue. Having been involved in eight goals in the first six league games of the campaign, Vinícius has only scored or assisted in one of the six games to follow. The goals have continued to flow in Europe, but question marks remain.

In particular, there are doubts over his ability to make a difference against the very best teams. Goals this season have come against Alavés, Levante, Celta Vigo, Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk and Elche, far from the glittering elite. In the most challenging ties of the season, against Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Betis, he has failed to register a goal or assist.

This start to the campaign has helped Vinícius to establish himself as one of the leading members of the supporting cast at Real Madrid. Ancelotti kept him on the bench for the first two games of the season, but he has started every match since, and it’s easy to see why.

In order to truly shine at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Vinícius needs a big moment. To date, it is yet to arrive. And after two-and-a-half seasons in Madrid, patience may soon begin to wear thin. There remains a sense that Vinícius almost believes his own hype. “Forget the fans, focus on the game,” Ancelotti was caught shouting at him at Camp Nou. Doing so is at the heart of whatever Vinícius goes on to achieve.

Tite’s decision to leave him out of the Brazil squad to face Argentina and Colombia in the latest Brazil squad reflects that. Vinícius is the kind of player who gets the fans on the edge of their seats, but he’s also the kind of player who will tear their coach’s nerves to shreds. Eventually called up to replace Roberto Firmino due to injury, his trickery caught the eye; he remains a glittering talent in a pragmatic side for both club and country.

The doubts surrounding Vinícius are fading away. There can be little doubt over his raw talent. His passion is almost trademark Brazilian, and his drive is unrivalled in the modern game. His technical ability is magnificent, and he now appears to have the finishing skills to match. He’s proven that he’s more than a young winger with flair, he’s a man who can make a difference and win a game on his own.

But Real Madrid fans are still waiting. With only one goal from 17 games against last season’s top four in LaLiga, Vinícius needs to prove himself to truly establish himself. His brace against Liverpool earlier this year looked like it could have been the moment, but instead it accounted for half of his goals return for the whole campaign. 2021/22 is a different opportunity, one that he has taken advantage of to date, but he’s still missing his heavyweight title. Once he takes that, the world is waiting for him.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown