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Vinicius Jr will be fine, but the press may not be

Words, stats, and film on a scrutinized star and an unpromising press


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.

Two items from the RB Leipzig game that are really just extensions of larger talking points:

Vinicius Jr will be fine

Many fans have begun to tear their hair out at Vinicius Jr’s season so far over an apparent regression. While I think it’s fair to point out certain criticisms of his game this season, I think the idea of his drop-off is largely exaggerated.

Vinicius missed a big chance (that he himself was the main creator of) in Leipzig on Tuesday night that could’ve levelled the game. Some of his passages of play could be met with better decision-making and a simplification in his execution.

But what fans often have a hard time grappling with is that growth is not linear, and expecting perfection from young (or old, for that matter) players is unreasonable. Vinicius met and raised the bar last season by being the best winger in the Champions League and arguably the best winger in Europe, full stop. This season, despite going through a ‘slump’, he is still outperforming his xG (some of that because the goals he scores are insanely improbable to compensate for the easier chances he misses); is second in La Liga in goal-creating actions, third in passes into the penalty area, and fifth in expected assists.

That is a long-winded way of saying that Vinicius is and will be fine. On Tuesday he scored the team’s only goal, and as has always been with his baseline performances, worked hard defensively amid a jagged positional cobweb at the defensive left-back slot:

Not many attackers can impact the game when their offense isn’t flowing efficiently the way Vinicius can. Benzema is another. Fede and Rodryo a third and fourth — they all work defensively and understand that Ancelotti demands a two-way presence from all of them.

But it is also a testament to how far Vinicius has come and how great the standard is now, where we consider his season “inefficient”. His season, as a reminder, has been laid out like this: eight goals and four assists, 38 completed dribbles, and 26 key passes in 15 games. That we see him ‘fail’ so much is also because we see him attempt a lot, and the plays he stumbles at the end, either due to a poor decision or poor execution, are also birthed by his own volition. Your wingers should be line-breakers, and that’s what Vinicius is. Far worse than seeing Vinicius fail at the end is seeing him being timid on the ball.

Fans have to be open to the growing pains of such a young talented player. You don’t get the game-changing version of Vinicius without the mistakes that come a long with it. Vinicius, the recipient of the most progressive passes received in La Liga (90), has never been scared of the occasion — a highly valuable trait in big games where the pressure pops.

None of that is to say Vinicius can’t improve. The eye test confirms that Vinicius can make better decisions on the ball and simplify certain sequences to minimize the blunders and increase the frequency of his production within games. Vinicius is first in minutes on the team this season and was third last season. Perhaps some rest would help keep him fresh.

Space between the lines on defense

Real Madrid have been strategic with their press this season, leaving it for specific moments when the opponent is tired in the second half, or implementing it directly from a kick off or opposing goal-kick. Against Leipzig, the pressing sequences were more abundant and notably bad. Marco Rose’s men eviscerated the space between the lines:

In two nearly identical sequences, Real Madrid’s midfield trio are converged on one side, and easily by-passed through clever movement from Xaver Schlager, a ball over the top into space, and a switch to the right-back Mohamed Simakan.

As always, the main challenge with pressing will always be cohesion. The more teams press, the easier and more collectively instinctual it becomes.

You can see the intent — but intent is not enough. As Toni Kroos darts forward to mark Amadou Haidara off the ball above, there is a free man behind him. Kroos pleads for help in marking the run behind him on the left to no avail. Nacho can’t step as there is a man open on the flank with Vinicius already higher up the pitch. Real Madrid get sliced with one pass.

In other sequences like this, Aurelien Tchouameni saves a broken defensive structure:

Carlo Ancelotti has been more daring in games that are less consequential. He tried Luka Modric as a false-nine in last year’s Clasico at the Bernabeu, and against Leipzig, he tried to incorporate more pressing sequences while deploying Eduardo Camavinga ahead of a double pivot.

I’m not sure we’ll see these less conservative wrinkles in (most) future games.

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