Eyebrows were raised when Real Madrid poached 17-year-old Vinicius Jr from Flamengo in the summer of 2017 for an eye-watering €46 million. Too young to even join Los Blancos at the time of his transfer due to international transfer restrictions, he arrived in the Spanish capital in 2018 with the weight of the world’s heavy expectations on his shoulders.
Cristiano Ronaldo had just left for Turin, leaving a void on the left flank, and it was anticipated that Vinicius would replace him. Four years later, it would appear that those expectations have been fulfilled. Of course, Vinicius is still far from matching the heights that Ronaldo achieved with the club but it is tough not to see shades of his predecessor rooted in his playstyle.
Hypnotising trickery, cold-bloodedness in front of goal, and a visible clutch gene are qualities that the two share, and it is difficult not to get impassioned just considering the potential that the young man possesses.
It hasn’t always been straightforward for Vinicius. His talent was clear, but just eight league goals in his first three campaigns in Madrid led to some having their doubts, including his teammates.
As Vinicius struggled against Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League at the beginning of the 2020/21 campaign, cameras noticed teammate Karim Benzema telling Ferland Mendy in the tunnel that “on my mother’s life, this guy [Vinicius] is playing against us”. Benzema did not pass to Vinicius for the next 25 minutes, and Mendy passed it to him just three times in that second half.
A testament to his robust and shrewd character, Vinicius was able to bury the hatchet and used it as motivation to progress. In the 2021/22 campaign, there hasn’t been a deadlier duo in world football than the young Brazilian and the French virtuoso, as they combined for over an immense 100 goals and assists between them.
This year, the Brazilian has gone from strength to strength. His rise has been meteoric. He started the season with a point to prove and hasn’t looked back since. A newly discovered cut-throat edge to his game has accompanied his celebrated, mazy runs and mesmerising dribbling.
Jorge Valdano, who played for Los Blancos from 1984 to 1987 and who coached them from 1994 to 1996 quipped that “he has learned to finish within a week” after Vinicius scored three goals in quick succession last August. He continued to flourish and cemented the left-wing position as his own.
Before the turn of the year, he had doubled his entire La Liga goals tally from the previous three seasons. One of these goals, in a critical tie versus title hopefuls Sevilla, was an absolute rocket that epitomises the clutch player that Vinicius has become.
Brazilian compatriot and close comrade Eder Militao pings a ball from centre-back around 40 yards towards the left wing. With skill you may expect from the most polished version of Ronaldinho, Vinicius uses his chest to cushion the ball inside the defenceless Lucas Ocampos.
Driving inside with ruthless incision, Vini drops the shoulder, beats another man, and from outside the box, unleashes a ferocious strike into the top right-hand corner of the goal. The full-time whistle blows a mere few minutes later and the scoreline reads 2-1. Real Madrid takes the three points, and Vinicius affirms that he, and Real, mean serious business.
Vinicius, alongside Ballon D’or frontrunner Karim Benzema, continued to spearhead Real’s La Liga and Champions League hopes, with a consistency that has not been witnessed at the Bernabeu since Cristiano Ronaldo conquered European football there several years ago.
The Brazilian winger racked up 17 La Liga goals and 10 assists and bamboozled fans and opposition defences alike with flicks, chops and nutmegs. He ranks in the 99th percentile for progressive carries and touches in the attacking penalty box over the last year.
He also ranks amongst the very best in Europe for shot-creating actions per 90, dribbles completed (3.7 per 90), progressive passes, and non-penalty goals, demonstrating how Vinicius has made himself into a constant threat. What has been more impressive, however, is the winger’s ability to step up when his team needs him most.
The goal against Sevilla early in the season was an indication of this. Since then, Vini has assisted vital goals against Atletico Madrid, PSG, and Chelsea and weighed in himself against Valencia, Barcelona, Manchester City and most notably, the sole goal against Liverpool in the Champions League final.
Scoring the winner in the most substantial, recognised, and widely observed club football match is no joke, doing so at the youthful age of 21 is even less so.
Immediately after the final, it was reported that Vinicius is set to sign a new contract with Real Madrid, keeping him at the club until 2028. Florentino Perez has entrusted Vini to lead Real’s attack for the next decade. If he continues to perform as he did in this incredible season, it can be considered good business.
With Vinicius now firmly ingrained in the Brazil national team set-up, the World Cup later this year will be a chance for him to show that he is truly amongst the footballing elite. Alongside Neymar, the Seleçao will have a real chance of winning the competition.
Only 21 years old with the world at his fingertips, Vinicius Junior is undoubtedly one of the most enthralling entertainers in football. He has helped aficionados of this distinguished club quickly forget about the Kylian Mbappe saga and he is embracing his newly entrusted responsibilities like a player that has the hallmarks of a true footballing great. He simply is the ‘Real’ deal.
By: Nicky Helfgott / @NickyH3lfgott
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport