Vinicius Junior had only just made his senior debut when Real Madrid reached an agreement to sign him for €46 million. They had already seen enough in the Brazilian teenager to justify such an outlay. Having missed out on Neymar when he left South America to join Barcelona, Los Blancos weren’t ready to miss out on Brazil’s next superstar.
Still only 20, Vinicius has become a divisive figure for Real Madrid. His natural talent has never been in question, but he can be frustrating, infuriating even, to watch. Far too often, the final product is missing from his game. The classic Vinicius move is to dribble past almost everyone on the pitch before putting the straightforward finish wide or straight at the goalkeeper.
However, the performance Vinicius produced in Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter final first leg win over Liverpool could prove to be a turning point in the young winger’s career. He was in devastating form, scoring the first and third goals in a 3-1 victory with the sort of composure that hasn’t always been typical of him.
“I’m delighted for him, we are seeing some fantastic stuff from him right now,” Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said afterwards, praising Vinicius for his display against Liverpool. “We know how good he can be when he gets into space, as he showed with the first goal, which was fantastic.”
This performance was no one-off either, as Vinicius similarly shone in Real Madrid’s Clasico win over Barcelona just a few days later. He didn’t find the back of the net, as he did in the first leg against Liverpool, but he was just as influential, carrying the Spanish champions up the pitch to expose Barca at the back. And tonight Vini Jr. went on to provide a few offensive bright spots in a defensive-minded approach against Liverpool in their goalless second leg draw.
A positional change has been a factor in Vinicius’ recent upturn in form. Rather than being deployed in a traditional wide role, as had been the case for the majority of his Real Madrid career to date, Zidane has most recently used him as something of a secondary forward, giving the 20-year-old freedom to play through the middle.
Initially, the purpose of this change was to harness Karim Benzema and compensate for the loss of key figures (such as Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal) through injury. The byproduct, however, has been the way Vinicius has responded to the shift in shape. He has grown in confidence and has been emboldened by the additional responsibly placed on his shoulders.
There are still moments of rawness every so often. Vinicius could still do with refining his play in and around the penalty box where he sometimes makes the wrong decision. Alongside the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, technical marvels in the way they control and manipulate the ball, Vinicius can appear a little clumsy.
Until recently, one of the biggest criticisms of Vinicius was that he had failed to develop following an explosive breakthrough two years ago. He was the same player in 2020 that he was back in 2018. This year, however, has seen him make the progress many expected of him. Vinicius is finally learning, recognising his own shortcomings and crucially working to address them.
He has been key to Real Madrid’s recent turnaround in fortunes. Not so long ago, Zidane looked to be fighting for his future at the club. Back-to-back defeats to Alaves and Shakhtar Donetsk at the end of November and start of December had many suggesting the Frenchman would soon be on his way out of the Santiago Bernabeu.
Since then, though, Real Madrid have found some form and consistency. They are back in the title race in La Liga, just one point off Atletico Madrid in top spot, and are through to the Champions League semi-finals following their impressive quarter-final first leg win over Liverpool and steady draw today.
Benzema’s goalscoring form cannot be ignored as a factor in this resurgence, with the Frenchman netting 10 goals in his last nine appearances in all competitions, but Vinicius also deserves credit for the performances he has turned in. If Real Madrid conclude this season with some silverware in-hand, the Brazilian will have more than played his role.
Real Madrid gambled by spending so much money on a 16-year-old who had only played a handful of minutes, but Vinicius is now fulfilling the potential they saw in him. There is still much more to come from the 20-year-old, which is an exciting given how the difference he is now making at the top level.