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Vinicius Jr’s Growing Pains: Examining His Dribbling Efficiency

Vinicius’s dribbling efficiency has regressed from year 1 to year 3. Kiyan Sobhani takes a closer look at some underlying numbers.

ESP: FC Barcelona - Real Madrid. La Liga Santander Photo by Pressinphoto/Icon Sport via 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.

It has been apparent ever since Julen Lopetegui gave Vinicius Jr his first Real Madrid start back in 2018 — a stalemate at the Bernabeu against Atletico Madrid where the Brazilian came on in the 88th minute for Karim Benzema — that this kid isn’t afraid of anything, anyone. The initial cameo from the Brazilian winger was too brief to come away with anything analytical, but when Santiago Solari took over the club mid-season and started to incorporate Vinicius as a key figure in Real Madrid’s offense, it was clear that Vinicius, thrown into a raging volcano during a club rebuild, would back down from no one — not least the likes of Jose Gimenez and Gerard Pique who dared him to attack, with both getting blitzed.

It has been nearly two years since we were formally introduced to Vinicius unexpectedly early. Two long years, with the world being turned upside down and scrambling our sense of time entirely. He’s still only 20, just beginning his journey. Had Solari not given him prolific playing time back in 2019, we may not have seen Vinicius as a consistent member of the squad yet — with the outside shot that he’d be on loan like Brahim now, or only returning the way Odegaard did this season.

Vinicius’s journey, like any other young player’s, has been bumpy. His initial breakout season saw him go at everyone, constantly. By the end of the season, no Real Madrid player among those with over 400 minutes completed more dribbles per 90 (6.08 attempts). He successfully completed 62.7% of those exertions — a respectable clip for someone who dares those take-ons at a high level.

His other strength was his defensive effort. He’d cover for Marcelo, and when Solari fielded Sergio Reguilon behind Vinicius, the team’s flank defense tightened. By the end of the season, the only attacking player with more pressures in the defensive third per 90 was Lucas Vazquez. Vinicius’s defense was a an unexpected but welcomed wrinkle. Some players don’t provide much if their offense isn’t flowing. Vinicius found ways to contribute off the ball if opposing defenses sucked the space away from him.

Since that debut season, Vinicius went through a sophomore slump, and is still trying to work his way out of it. Once the scouting report came out in year two, teams were careful not to give him much space. They threw multiple bodies at him and dared him to pass more in transition and find an open player. If you put enough coverage on the wings, Vinicius’s only solution is to go backwards or make a risky dribble through traffic. In a team that has not been positionally-sound defensively, opponents knew they could punish a Vinicius giveaway with players not counter-pressing and keeping a high line.

Still, Vinicius played through it. He doubled-down on his strength: dribbling. His attempts rose. He eclipsed the entire team with 109 take-ons. He overtook Lucas Vazquez as the attacker with most pressures in the final third. Only five players — Takefusa Kubo, Nabil Fekir, Fabian Orellana, Lucas Ocampos, Lionel Messi — took players on more in the 2019 - 2020 La Liga season.

But while Vinicius’s attempts skyrocketed, his efficiency dropped. He went from completing 62.7% of his dribbles to just 48.6% — the worst mark of any of the top 20 dribblers in La Liga from the ‘19-20 season.

Some of that is just ‘growing pains’. But there are still real concerns with his efficiency overall. From year one until now, Vinicius’s panic-feet in front of goal remain a constant. There is no metric to measure panic. He underperforms his xG, but the eye test tells us something beyond that: As soon as he gets into a scoring chance, his brain tells his feet to hit the ball, without calculating direction or velocity. The best goalscorers have less thoughts and more quick-thinking action. Their mind connects to their boots quickly and more naturally.

The only solution is to be exposed to more of those panic-inducing situations. Watch Vinicius in training, and he slings everything into the corner of the net during shooting practice. When the stakes are higher, that efficiency gets zapped. You have to hope that over time, he will get desensitized to those moments. Vinicius is coming off the back of two consecutive games where he looked in his head. Barcelona gave him space, but the Brazilian’s decision-making in transition was poor. He couldn’t break lines against Borussia Mönchengladbach, and as he found himself in the box unmarked, he swung wildly at the ball, as if the bullseye was a field-goal, two o’clock. Even still, he worked hard, and leads the team with three goals (nearly matching his tally from last season, while leading the team in goals this season). Baby steps!

(To be clear, Vinicius’s numbers leading the team points to a deeper offensive problem.)

This is now year three. Hazard’s health remains a question mark, and the more the team misses his (theoretical) line-breaking, they will need Vinicius’s. You can supplement without both of them, but you will have to restructure the team’s offense to get Isco or Odegaard in good positions between the lines, or ask the current wingers to do more incisive take-ons. (Both Rodrygo and Asensio have the ceiling for it, even if not as prolifically as Vinicius. The trade-off is that they are better goal-scorers and passers.)

Vinicius’s dribbling attempts this season remain high (7.3 per 90, and a team high 39 overall), but his efficiency remains around 50%.

If and when Hazard gets healthy, the question we’ve all been awaiting, that has yet to be answered, is whether these two can co-exist. And if they can, do their stylistic parallels become redundant? Moving one centrally or to the right gets them out of their comfort zone in a non-conducive way. Neither Hazard nor Vinicius are elite goal-scorers, and if you have them both on the field, is the extra line-breaking enough justification to drop a better goalscorer like Rodrygo, Asensio, or even someone like Fede who can get into goalscoring positions and actually convert them? It could be argued that if you throttle Vinicius or Hazard away from the left they are not the same line-breaking presence anyway. The goalscoring from those aforementioned wingers is negligible — but Zidane will take any marginal goalscoring ability he can get from midfield in the post-Ronaldo miss-fest.

“He’s most comfortable out on the left wing,” Zidane said of Vinicius’s positioning back in November. “And at his age he has to play where he feels best.” Players need to be versatile to survive. Vinicius will need to expand his comfort zone with all the competition breathing down his neck. His Brazilian contemporary, Rodrygo Goes, has largely been on the right — that’s a testament to his versatility. He’s naturally a left-winger who played his best football in Brazil from the left.

Left or not, Vinicius will have to learn to pick and choose his spots. Let shooters shoot, I say — even through slumps. But sometimes the game needs to come naturally to him, otherwise stifling him with multiple defenders can coax him into bad decisions.

(To be clear, Vinicius should be encouraged to go at his defender there, but there is wiggle room to say that a wide-open Kroos at the top of the box is the better option. The above sequence is just an illustration that his dribble success-rate has dropped since his breakout season.)

One staggering stat that points to more deeply-rooted schematic problems: Not one of Vinicius’s dribbles have led to a shot attempt from the team. Last season, Vinicius’s dribbles created .66 shooting actions per 90. Even when Vinicius does get past his man, it’s not always in a position that advances the team’s path to goal — and if it is, his passing in transition melts, and the offense halts. It is still too early to run away with those numbers, but there is room for concern that the team’s offense has not yet improved, and the issues have festered for over a year.

When Vinicius’s dribbling efficiency drops, defensive lines can predict his runs and let the play die a slow death. Good defenders can square him up one-on-one, like Dest does here (and more famously, like Kyle Walker did last season):

Vinicius has been dispossessed more than anyone on the team this season. But it is unfair to pin Real Madrid’s tame offense on Vinicius — the only player consistently looking to create any kind of chaos. He gets stripped of the ball more than anyone because he’s the most daring dribbler the team has. His giveaways are just some of many. (Varane and Casemiro have struggled under pressure; and Asensio’s passes have been blocked 11 times this season — a team high.)

One thing about Vinicius that should not get swept under the radar: Players like him have the right mentality to succeed. It is never a sure-fire thing to predict the trajectory of a young rising star with flaws in his game. You’d be willing to bet on those who are well-intentioned — those who are involved. Euan McTear and I discussed this on a recent podcast: That if there’s anything that him and Cristiano Ronaldo have in common, it’s that even when they’re not scoring (and in Cristiano’s case, that was extremely rare) you could feel their presence on the field. I get worried when players go missing, but not when they get to the right spots and miss.

“The main thing is that the player wants to score goals,” Zidane said of Vinicius last December. “Goals come with confidence, the important thing is to score one and get on the goals trail.”

Vinicius is still raw. These growing pains likely won’t go away anytime soon. He will continue to struggle in front of goal. 20 or not, Real Madrid will need him to take his chances at a more respectable clip, and his dribbling efficiency will need to get back to where it was in his breakout season — at the very least.

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