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Vinícius Jr: Breaking Lines, Barriers and Narratives

A deeper look into Vini Jr’s rise in 2021-22 from a data-viz perspective.

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

Vinícius Jr’s leap in productivity has been staggering, to say the least, when compared to his Real Madrid career before the current season. He is still just 21 but it seems like Vinícius has been around for a while. He wasn’t originally part of the first team’s plans when he arrived in 2018-19 but destiny (as written by Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari) gave Vinícius an early start in the big league. He was always fast, a very good dribbler — but decision-making and keeping a cool head in front of goal had been missing from his repertoire. 14 games into the new season, the change is unreal, and sometimes, unthinkable. So what initiated this change and can we exemplify exactly how drastic it is?

Carlo Ancelotti’s approach with Vinícius has been simple but very efficient.

“I told Vinícius to take only one or two touches before shooting” - Carlo Ancelotti.

This simple quote may well go down as one of the famous ones in football history if it isn’t already. Vinícius Jr had been guilty of taking too many touches and trying too many things even in the face of simple tap-in opportunities in the prior seasons. When he eliminated the extra-touches, the goals started piling. The excellent goal and assist numbers are also a by-product of subtle changes and upgrades in his game.

Ball Progression

Vinícius has truly made Real Madrid’s left flank his own. He is the primary funnel on his side of the pitch. In Europe’s Top five Leagues, Vinícius is second in terms of progressive carries overall, sixth for carries into the final third, and second for carries into the penalty area — ahead of a French forward named Kylian Mbappe. Vini is also second in terms of dribbles attempted and eighth in terms of dribbles completed across Europe’s top five leagues.

A key aspect of Vinícius’ carries: they start in wider areas and end in areas closer to the goal. Vinícius carries the ball with better purpose now and not just for the sake of carrying it in a linear path. Vinícius is fourth in the list for most touches in the attacking final third and attacking penalty area among Europe’s top five leagues. This is a significant piece of statistic showing how he has become a focal part of Real Madrid’s offense along with Karim Benzema.

Off-the-ball Movement

Due to his leap in productivity, the trait that remains the most underrated about Vinícius’s game is probably his off-the-ball movement. Decision-making is not just something you have to have in front of the goal. Intelligent decision-making can take place 40 yards away from the goal too.

In this first sequence, Vinícius plays the ball back himself, and instantly recognizes the horizontal and vertical space across and ahead of him. He knew Luka Modric was going to play the long ball and decided to make the run.

In the second sequence, he left his original position, anticipating Karim Benzema’s through-ball and completely decapitated Barcelona’s structure. This move could have been stamped into El Clasico folklore had it not been offside. But Vini Jr’s anticipation was brilliant anyway.

In the third sequence, he envisages a move that they have surely practiced in Valdebebas, makes a razor-sharp run, and finishes it calmly. For people who have followed Vinícius’s Madrid career since its inception, these kinds of moves and their outcomes are nothing but a matter of pure relief.

Defensive Work

Vinicius Jr’s defensive work is one of the most impressive things about his nature of play. He will track back relentlessly whenever Real Madrid loses the ball. This is one of the reasons all four managers that he has played under wanted to give him more chances. In this day and age, when almost every team is trying to devise a scheme of counter-pressing, it’s really hard to operate for a manager even if one outfield player is not willing to defend. Well, there is no doubt about Vini’s willingness.

As seen on the visualization, he has a lot of ball-recoveries in his half. This has often been Real Madrid’s launching pad for offensive transitions.

Vinícius Jr has scored nine goals and made three assist in all competitions before the home fixture against Shakhtar. He made two more assists vs. Shakhtar. Among players who are over-performing their xG in Europe’s top five leagues, only Giovanni Simeone of Hellas Verona (son of Diego Simeone), Mohamed Salah of Liverpool FC, and Karim Benzema are ahead of Vinícius. These numbers are scintillating but are bound to dip in their natural course. But unless they do not regress to Vinícius Jr’s level of 2019-20 or 2020-21, we have a brilliant player in our ranks.

[Numerical data for this article was collected from Fbref, until the end of Real Madrid’s league game vs. Elche. Visualizations were also prepared for the same timeline.]