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How Vinicius Jr’s Leap Has Taken Real Madrid To New Heights

A year ago Karim Benzema had little help offensively, and winning without him would’ve been daunting. Vinicius taking his game to another level has changed that.

Elche CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/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.

Last season, amid a rebuild year where Eden Hazard missed 32 games due to injuries and health concerns, Real Madrid finished two points shy of league champions Atletico Madrid, coming up short by a whisker on the last matchday. Then coach Zinedine Zidane rebuilt a tactical scheme that struggled to score, and turned it into a defense-first blueprint that relied on Karim Benzema’s individual brilliance. Real Madrid had the second best defense in the league, and scored 18 goals less than third-place Barcelona.

Benzema had no help when it came to scoring goals. He netted 30 in league play. Not a single player outside the Frenchman hit double digits; not a single attacking player bagged more than seven. Had one player stepped up to hit 10, that could’ve made the difference.

It’s a simple ask, but all Benzema needed was for one player to step up. Hazard couldn’t do it from the sidelines. Both Vinicius Jr and Marco Asensio underperformed their xG, and Rodrygo was efficient but couldn’t stay healthy or on the field. The onus was on Casemiro, Sergio Ramos — or sometimes a Luka Modric strike from midfield.

Someone has finally raised the call, one Brazilian wonder-kid named Vinicius Jr, who’s been lights out for Real Madrid — sitting at nine goals on the season, and after just 14 games played, has already surpassed the six goals he scored over 49 appearances in all competitions this season.

LISTEN: Elche 1 - 2 Real Madrid post-game Managing Madrid Podcast.

Vinicius taking this leap has been the difference between top of the table and a place somewhere in the top-four. Those margins may not seem huge now, but they will be apparent in June. On Saturday against Elche, the team played without Karim Benzema. As we noted on the post-game podcast last night, a trio of Vinicius - Mariano - Rodrygo, had it been deployed last season, wouldn’t have gotten many excited. This season, Vinicius’s presence is the distinguishing factor between a win and dropped points — and that’s in an away game against Elche, where the team struggled defensively and only carved out an xG of 1.6. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Real Madrid don’t win this game last season without Benzema.

And I can’t help but feel that the biggest winner in Real Madrid’s “failed attempt” (used loosely, for obvious reasons) to sign Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint Germain this summer was Vinicius, and probably Real Madrid, long term. Maybe Mbappe would’ve stuck to the right wing and we’d still see a dominant Vinny, but this way almost guaranteed it. Vinicius is the de facto best left winger the team has, and has been an offensive armageddon. If Mbappe arrives next season, he will come at a time where it’s common knowledge that Vinicius has his place. The tactics would revolve around Mbappe, Vinicius, and Benzema. That may have not been the case had Real signed Mbappe, and as a domino effect, perhaps never have seen this version of Vinicius — this season anyway.

There were even real discussions of a Vinicius - Mbappe swap over the summer to coax PSG into a deal. That seems crazy now, and as Lucas Navarrete and I discussed on Thursday’s podcast, even though Mbappe is the better player, it’s a moot point given the fact you could have both in the same lineup months from now.

(In hindsight, it’s absolutely crazy that PSG wouldn’t take some form of cash + Vinicius for a player they’ll likely lose for free — but PSG are somehow proud of their craziness.)

The real question now is: What does the regression to the mean look like? What is the real version of Vinicius? How sustainable is this? We assumed he’d cool at the beginning of the season after coming out of the gates hot. He took a two-to-three game dip (and looked out of place with the Brazilian National Team), but then rose back like a phoenix. If he sustains this, we’re looking at similar leaps that Gonzalo Higuain (‘08-09), Raheem Sterling, (‘17-18), Mohamed Salah (‘17-18), and Cristiano Ronaldo (‘06-07) all took after struggling in front of goal in years’ prior. If that’s the next step Vinicius takes, he was worth every penny.

But talking about shots missed and goals scored is almost a disservice to a player that not only has looked better in front of goal, but also more mature and refined in his decision-making. As I dug through the numbers this morning, it turns out he’s not just a better goal-scorer, he’s better at everything when the ball is at his feet:

To be sure, I think his better decision-making goes hand-in-hand with his goal-scoring. Everything feeds each other in this web of numbers, and at the core of it is his confidence. It was always clear to me: Vinicius’s goal-scoring issues weren’t down to his technical ability, but what was going through his head in the moment. Watch him in practice last season and you’ll see a goal-scoring assassin. But he’d freeze in the game. This season he’s out of his head, playing the game outside of last season’s mental prison — from an aerial view where everything flows naturally.

All the above numbers have come with less touches per 90 than last season — pointing to further efficiency and less overthinking with the ball. His defensive metrics — across the board — are all down, but that’s the tradeoff you make when you get this kind of offensive production. You can afford to conserve energy for the final third. Mendy’s return makes this easier, and Vinicius still works hard defensively.

One new wrinkle I love: Vinicius has spent more time in the left half-space as an outlet for his wingbacks. He doesn’t always rely on blitzing players on the wing, but moves so well in the box to receive a ball, and despite surrounded by defenders, he eels his way out for either a shot, or a cut-back to an open player.

“He is getting used to playing more centrally,” Carlo Ancelotti said to the press after Real Madrid’s win over Elche on Saturday night. “Which takes time to learn since it’s different to have a one-on-one in the area compared to out on the wing.”

Perhaps the biggest indicator of how far he’s come is the trust he’s earned. In two key goals against Barcelona and Elche, Vinicius was a key cog of the sequence, and on both occassions, he made the right play despite it not being obvious to those watching. Against Barcelona, he looked off the obvious pass down the flank to David Alaba in favour of a more difficult pass centrally to Rodrygo which opened up a third-man run for Alaba. Against Elche, instead of playing a square ball across goal to Mariano, he took an extra touch, sucked in goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, and lifted the ball over him from a tight angle.

There is something special about what Vinicius Jr is brewing into that makes the future look more exciting.

LIVE IN DALLAS: Book your tickets to see Kiyan Sobhani and Matt Wiltse record a live episode of the Managing Madrid Podcast in Dallas, Texas, on November 20th.

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