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Vinicius Jr’s Sophomore Season Will Test His Versatility And Offensive Efficiency

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, on what Vinicius will need to work on this season

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Vinicius Jr was like any other kid who loves football — he’d train with his football team in the day time, and rush home to play FIFA after, with the sun well below the horizon before he’d be called to bed. He loved video games and still does.

It was not easy for him and his family though, and this ‘normal’ kid had his own set of struggles that escaped the benchmark that many families have. Vinicius was raised in São Gonçalo — a municipality within the Rio de Janeiro metropolis. It is a place which, up until 2008, had a garbage collection crisis and is still polluted heavily. The area is patrolled by favela gang members and criminals. Police who monitor São Gonçalo have only fuelled more violence by taking the lives of innocent people; and according to a 2013 study, 48% of the population are vulnerable to poverty.

Vinicius was raised by a loving family — by parents who still manage his finances and keep him on the right path. The family did not have money, but they had a structure of values, and strong pillars of love and unity that kept them from crumbling. Vinicius Jr’s father, Vinícius José Paixão de Oliveira, worked multiple jobs just to afford the transportation costs to get his son to training.

Sometimes, even those costs ran up too high. Before Vinicius took up outdoor football, he was a futsal player. His team’s futsal training ground in Niterol — a ferry ride south of São Gonçalo — ended up being too costly to get to, and the only solution was to send Vinicius to live with his uncle to avoid the transportation costs altogether.

Those futsal training sessions were the beginning of an improbable journey — one that saw Vinicius catapult up the ranks rapidly. At age eight, he was the best futsal player on his team. Two years later, when he decided he wanted to play football instead of futsal, he passed trials at Flamengo and entered their youth academy. Seven years later he made his professional debut for them. Two days after his debut, Flamengo extended Vinicius’s contract as part of their negotiations with Real Madrid, gave him a dramatic salary bump, and raised his buyout clause. 10 days after his debut, he signed with Real Madrid.

As part of the incredible journey, the family pillars remained strong — even inspiring. While Vinicius rose up the Flamengo ranks, he had to continue living with his uncle to avoid transportation costs. His mother moved in to support him, while his father stayed home with Vinicius’s siblings and picked up multiple jobs just to keep the family afloat. His mother’s full time commitment was to accompany Vinicius to and from training.

“He has done well at every stage on his way to this point, calmly passing through each youth category, even through the ones which didn’t correspond with his age,” Vinicius’s former head coach at Flamengo, Zé Ricardo, said when Real Madrid signed him.

“Every time he moved up an age category he didn’t notice the difference.”

One trait that enabled him to stand out in every age category: fearlessness. That mettle was apparent as soon as he landed in Madrid. At Castilla, he carried himself like it was a privilege for those kids — those poor, young mortals — to be on the same pitch as him. He transcended everything. When I caught up with Santiago Solari last season, after he managed Castilla to a 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid B (in a nasty game, where an Atleti player bit Vinicius’s head, and the Brazilian scored two golazos), the Argentine told me, “Vinicius isn’t really here to learn tactics. He’s too good for this level. He’s just here to stay in shape.”

And that alpha mentality continued when Solari brought him into the senior team amid Real Madrid’s troubles. Vinicius approached the left flank like he played there for years. He hounded defenders relentlessly, and took players on unapologetically — something Karim Benzema eventually became really thankful for, given that Real Madrid had no other reliable line-breaking presence in attack to help him.

“Emotionally he is very strong and he doesn’t get down easily,” Ricardo said.

”He doesn’t feel under pressure against an opponent, no matter their age or size.”

Real Madrid decided to sign Vinicius quickly from Flamengo, almost on a whim, and on a very small sample size. Half the reason they signed him was the work ethic and strong head on his shoulders. The other half is easy: Sheer talent. Vinicius is raw, and has been in a massive goalscoring funk. A sophomore slump may loom. But he throws people around just as much as he dribbles past them. He took opponents by surprise when he dispossessed them and muscled them off the ball, or bounced off challenges from powerful defenders in his first season at Real.

“From the very first day he showed great ability, not only in technical terms, but physically too,” Ricardo, who’s known Vinicius since he was 12, said.

”He is an outstanding player who is very quick and who manages to combine speed and technical skill, his two primary characteristics.”

With Vinicius, his charm extends beyond the pitch. Everyone at Real Madrid enjoys his presence. He hitched rides from Benzema and Toni Kroos to training, and some of Real Madrid’s older players took Vinicius under their wing.

“We’re delighted with his progress. He’s getting lots of help not just in matches, but in training too,” Solari said back in February.

”Lots of credit must go to Vinicius but also to his team-mates for the advice they’re passing on, helping him to improve his game.”

When Vinicius landed in Madrid, Real Madrid were loaded in his position. He was not expected to contribute much early on, and even when he was scoring goals for Castilla in the Fall, no one could guess the unthinkable scenario: They’d need him to resurrect their season, and that everything would eventually all crumble when Vinicius ruptured his knee ligament against Ajax in early March. (The team would’ve likely lost to Ajax regardless, because not having Vinicius in the side was the least of their problems that day — but they did lose their main source of attack when he left the pitch.)

But Bale had abductor problems at the end of September which saw him lose a month of football. In December, the Welshman continued to have niggling injuries in his ankle and calf which put out him out nearly two months at the beginning of 2019. Asensio too, missed over a month due to a muscle injury — and when he was in the lineup, he was severely out of form. The team hit a brick wall offensively. In December, its xG was on pace to be 30 goals behind the season average of the preceding five seasons. They went through a historic goal drought. As I wrote about back in October of last year, even Lopetegui’s efficient counter-press (which waned over time) wasn’t generating enough attacking opportunities to score at a respectable clip. Something needed to be done.

Solari saw the offensive struggles as an opportunity to inject Vinicius into the team, and he was proven right with his call. Vinicius was a deviation from the mundane possession — he was unpredictable and vertical. He had the ability to dribble and make daring runs — something only Marcelo provided on a consistent basis. (And even Marcelo was off.)

“He’s 18 years old, but he also has some things you just can’t teach,” Solari said back in November. Those traits were obvious. He had an offensive instinct that superstars carry. It was raw and unfiltered — and as time goes on, the kinks to Vinicius’s game are clear — but the energy he provided was enough to revive some excitement back into the squad.

He was not a key figure under Lopetegui, and due to a lengthy injury in March, Vinicius played just nine games in La Liga. But in those nine games he had the most successful completed dribbles per 90, and slung just over 1.5 key passes. At 4.4 shots, he was a shot-generating machine.

But the metrics give us a different picture outside of the chaos that Vinicius brings offensively. He is not an efficient player, yet. Those 4+ shots per 90 only generated an xG of 3.64 for the entire season, meaning the quality of his shots were low. The total of possessions that Vinicius was involved in which led to chances were below what an offensive star should generate — as were his expected assist numbers. Despite Asensio having a subpar season, he outshone Vinicius in almost every offensive metric apart from dribbling.

Asensio and Vinicius, side by side. Per UnderStat.

Those concerns carry over into his second season at Real Madrid, where the scouting report is out. Celta threw multiple defenders at him, and those successful dribbles were curbed.

As Brazilian head coach Tite said in November, “(Vinicius) is a great dribbler – a lot of one on one – but he lacks a little lucidity.”

Football friendly match Roma-Real Madrid Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Real Madrid finished last season’s La Liga campaign with 12 losses — the most they’ve suffered since they sputtered outside the top-five in 1996. It was a low-point in the club’s modern history. Give the season its due. Generations from now, when the book about this era is being written, that season will be circled, and potentially labelled as: ‘transition year, a rebuild which saw the emergence of Vinicius Jr and Sergio Reguilon’.

But it wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Vinicius, in his first season at the club, got a crash course in how Real Madrid can operate at times. This was a throwback: Three coaches in one season, off the back of a European title which the team was horrible domestically in. “At the start of the season we knew this would be a rebuilding season, that things would always be difficult,” Vinicius told Esporte just days after Ajax knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League. But this was more than a rebuild. It was a desperate ploy from the board to find someone, anyone — Lopetegui, Solari, Zidane — to pull out a sinking raft sucked into the ocean by a whirlpool.

“It’s bad to have a lot of changes,” Vinicius said over the summer. “But for young players like me, it’s good because you can learn something from every coach.”

Vinicius was thankful for the entire experience. No one likes to see coaches lose their jobs, but there were clear winners from the Lopetegui sacking, and Vinicius was one of them. Solari dragged Vinicius, along with Reguilon and Llorente, into battle and put them on the frontline. They delivered to the best of their capacities, and embedded the Clasicos and Derbies with Madridismo. Solari sharpened Real Madrid’s teeth with those call-ups — if nothing else.

There was something that Real Madrid clearly lacked during the goalscoring drought last summer: A consistent line-breaking presence. Solari recognized that Vinicius has that specific skill-set that the team desperately lacked.

“At that moment, the team needed a player who could take the ball forward and dribble past opponents,” Vinicius says, “So everything turned out quite easily for me because everyone at the club gave me confidence.”

Vinicius sees the merit in that season of turmoil. It helped build him. The alternative — staying in Brazil, in his comfort zone, for a loan stint — does not have the same appeal, even in hindsight. “I left Flamengo because I thought it was the right time to do it,” Vinicius said in June. “I had little room for improvement there. Two months in Madrid are better than one full year in Brazil, the training sessions are different, nobody wants to lose and there are players like Ramos or Benzema who are older than 30 years old but work harder than every single player. You also improve by being close to the best players in the world,”

Vinicius knows that things will be more difficult for him now. Opponents have a better idea of how to stifle him, and with Rodrygo and Kubo lurking from Castilla and Mallorca — he is not necessarily the new exciting kid in town anymore. Zidane also loves Brahim, who has a similar offensive pizzazz. Vinicius saw up close in Asensio what it’s like for a young breakout star to go through a slump with the world on his shoulders. Solari is no longer around to coddle Vinicius into the starting lineup. Zidane can have a tough-love approach. Vinicius knows he has to win the Frenchman over by adding to his game.

“I know he gives minutes to everyone,” Vinicius said when Zidane initially took over. “Right now we’re focusing on the next season but I’m calm because I know that I will get a chance to play.”

His biggest challenge now — Zidane will test his versatility. Vinicius will have to venture outside his comfort zone on the left where he blitzed so many wing-backs last season. Real Madrid may or may not sign Neymar — and they’ll likely lean away from the PSG winger altogether. If Neymar does arrives, he will go from Vinicius’s idol to someone that will thieve his position away in dramatic fashion. Even if the club doesn’t go that route, they signed Eden Hazard — a player who thrives in that exact position from the left flank — which makes the attacking puzzle somewhat knotty.

Of the two, Hazard is more equipped to take on a central role. He’s dazzled from the right with Chelsea, and has been an unstoppable ball-carrier down the middle in situational sequences under former coach Maurizio Sarri. Hazard as a free-roaming midfielder with Vinicius and Benzema funnelling possession on the left could work. But zoom out and take note of all the pieces: That’s Isco’s ideal role, too. Vinicius started against Celta but will likely take a backseat once Hazard returns. Bale occupies the other spot as a proven right winger.

“It’s going to be a little harder for me but I don’t have any problems with that.” Vinicius said about playing on the right wing when asked.

Zidane has tested Vinicius on the right in training, but we’re yet to see how that looks like in a meaningful game. The early returns from Vinicius on the right in preseason were, um, disastrous.

Throw in the immortal Lucas Vazquez, and another young prospect, Brahim, and you have yourself a spicy depth chart. Oh, there’s also James Rodriguez. Someone will lose out.

Real Madrid v Villarreal - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

“Zidane talks to me a lot and tells me to keep working because I’m very young,” Vinicius, who’s enjoyed his time under the French coach so far, said. “He also tells me not to listen to what other people say about me, to just pay attention to the coaching staff and my family because I am going to improve,”

“When a guy like him who played so well is sitting on the bench and talks about anything you just have to pay close attention, right? Sometimes we get a bit nervous when we go to talk to him but he does everything he can so that the players can focus on their job,”

Vinicius is aware of what he needs to improve on. He’s conscious of the criticism that comes his way when it comes to his lack of offensive efficiency, or as Tite put it, lack of ‘lucidity’. After training, he says he stays behind to debrief with the coaching staff and teammates about how he can improve his directness. “I do extra work at the end of every training session,” Vinicius says. “Zidane pulls me to one side to work on my finishing. And the other players also give me pointers and advice.”

No one on the coaching staff wants to see Vinicius focus so much on directness that he loses sight of his creativity. It’s a delicate balance. Talented players go up and down in form. They have heat-check moments and go through slumps. Players less-reliant on talent will choose their spots, work hard, and make the often less-daring pass. Great players have a good mix of both — and that’s what Vinicius is still trying to juggle.

Vinicius was pretty good about not shoehorning his verticality to the point where it feels unnatural to the flow of the game. He’d look for space in behind defenders, and if it wasn’t there, would recycle possession to Marcelo or Reguilon; or look for Benzema popping up in the half-space. His issue now is that defenders will swarm him and double-up on the flanks. That’s going to be tough to break.

“When I first arrived I already knew that there is a right time to dribble and take the ball forward,” says Vinicius. “I think that’s an area I read well. Sometimes I make mistakes but that’s normal for a player at my age.”

Vinicius set the bar high in his first season with Real Madrid, and his accelerated developmental curve will only increase the pressure on his shoulders. Ask Vinicius about it, and he’ll tell you he has the right support system to cope with it. Benzema takes him aside in training — and even in games — often. Sergio Ramos has taken him under his wing too. He likes the way Zidane works with him.

His idol, Neymar, is fully on board the hype train.

“He’ll become one of the best,” Neymar says. “He’ll compete for the Ballon d’Or.”

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