How Vinicius Junior became one of the World’s best attacking players

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Vinicius Júnior was bought by giants Real Madrid from Flamengo for a whopping €46 million on May 28, 2017, just a few weeks before his 17th birthday. Expectations were set before he even set a foot in Europe. Video compilations on Youtube (“Welcome to Madrid”), comparisons to Brazil star Neymar, and questions and doubts about the price tag and his ability. In 2013, Real Madrid missed out on Neymar to bitter rivals Barcelona and it was if Florentino Perez vowed to never have another “Brazilian that got away” not only spending €46M on Vinicius but also spending €45M on his Brazilian compatriot Rodrygo Goes a couple of years later. His first season at Madrid was in the 2018–19 season, when he arrived to a Real Madrid side who had just won their 13th Champions League title and their 3rd title in a row. It was a couple of weeks after the finale, that Cristiano Ronaldo announced his departure and this might’ve put even more pressure on the young Brazilian to suddenly be viewed as his long-term successor.

Vinicius first season at Real Madrid showed a glimpse into what he could become. He showed his strengths in his enthusiasm, dynamic pace, agility, balance, and creativity but his biggest weakness was his shooting and goal-scoring abilities. During his first season at Madrid, Vinicius played a total of 31 games scoring only 4 goals. This was not a terrible season for an 18 year-old featuring in a disappointing Real Madrid, first Cristiano Ronaldo-less season. Vinicius had great displays during the season, especially a very promising First-Leg game against Ajax in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but the weakness in his finishing was clear and it was during the 2019–2020 where Vinicius received even more criticism on his shooting abilities. In 2019–2020 La Liga season Vinicius was expected by the media and fans to be even better than his 2018–2019 showed. The Spanish media, known to be relentless against underperforming players/managers/teams, expected more goals, more assists, and an overall better Real Madrid side especially considering Zinedine Zidane was back at the helm replacing Santiago Solari who had replaced then Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui.

Vinicius began the season just having recovered from a Hamstring injury which caused inconsistent performances. His first goal came against Osasuna in Matchweek 6 where he immediately fell down on his knees and started sobbing. Quickly comforted by his Real Madrid teammates, the Bernabéu hugged him in applauses. This was a player that showed love for the badge, that showed commitment, that wore his heart on his sleeve. After the match, he confessed he had cried because after the injury he suffered against Ajax, which ended his season early and where he also left crying inconsolably, it was hard to get back to his previous form. Vinicius continued with good performances, glimpses here and there but lack of goals was still his biggest weakness. He scored one more in the Champions League against Club Brugge, a Round of 16 goal in Copa del Rey against Real Zaragoza, a deflected goal in El Clásico, and another against Mallorca in Matchweek 31 to end his total tally of 5 goals in 38 appearances.

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During the 2020–21 season, expectations were greater for Vinicius who the media targeted due to his poor numbers and his high price-tag despite his young age of 20 years old. It was during this season that media and fans began to assume this is all Vinicius would be. A winger without end product, without what any truly great forward must have: goals. He was slowly, unofficially labeled a ‘meme player’ and insults and nicknames poured in. Comparisons soured from Neymar to Robinho 2.0. Memes of his lack of finishing were constant on social media and the Spanish media were no longer ‘sweet’ about it either. It certainly did not help that Karim Benzema was caught on camera in the tunnel of a Champions League Group Stage match against Borussia Mönchengladbach telling teammate Ferland Mendy not to play with Vinicius as he stated “He plays against us”. Vinicius finished the season with a total of 6 goals in 49 appearances. The expectations for the 2021–22 season on Vinicius Júnior were beginning to also take the ‘meme’ route. Articles by newspaper AS asked patronizingly if Vinicius would be able to break his record “3 La Liga goals” this season.

Goals Per Shot Per 90 Minutes — La Liga Forwards w/ at Least 6 Games Played (Data Source: FBref, StatsBomb)
Carries into 1/3 of Opponents Field + Carries into Penalty Area — (Data Source: FBref, StatsBomb)

Vinicius Júnior began the season with a bang. He scored the fourth goal in a win against Deportivo Alavés in Matchweek 1 and scored twice against Levante in Matchweek 2. Three goals in his first two games and matching his infamous La Liga goal scoring “record”. Vinicius numbers are substantially better than in previous seasons. His goals per shot per 90 minutes sits at a cool 0.27 compared to the previous season 0.07 and a career high 0.08 from 2019–2020 season. Vinicius is only second to a prolific goalscorer like Luis Suarez. Vini’s progressive carries into the 1/3, which means a player controlled the ball at his feet into the opponents 1/3 of the field, and his progressive carries into the 18-yard box, are the highest in La Liga compared to forwards who have played at least 6 games in La Liga. This is clearly Vinicius best quality. He carries the ball into the opponents 1/3 of the field an average of 3.85 times per 90 minutes and he carries the ball into the opponents 18-yard box an even higher average of 4.29 times per 90 minutes. He has taken a far more direct approach to the opponents goal but what is even better than his improvement in decision making is his shooting improvement.

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GCA Per 90 + SCA Per 90 La Liga Forwards — (Data Source: FBref, StatsBomb)
Expected Goals & Assists vs Current Goals & Assists — (Data Source: FBref, Statsbomb)

Vinicius goal creating actions per 90 + his shot creating actions are only second to an extraordinary season by Benzema. He has an average of 5.69 shot creating actions per 90 minutes compared to Benzema’s 4.77 and he only falls short in his goal creating actions per 90 with an average of 0.77 compared to Karim’s 1.12. This is an incredible improvement from last season as he stood at 0.41 per 90 in goal creating actions and 3.20 shot creating actions. Another reason why Vinicius current season is much better and a big reason of what differentiates good players from the truly great ones is how they perform above their suggested expected goals (XG) and expected assists (XA). Vinicius is currently averaging an XG + XA of 0.55 while displaying an actual Goals + Assists of 0.98. Again, he only falls second to Benzema who is having a ridiculous season (His G + A is more than double his XG+XA) and should not over shadow the Brazilian’s clear jump in quality. Vinicius has stated that he practice on his shooting during the off-season and that he attributes his improvement to a combination of this and due to Carlo Ancelotti’s influence on the Brazilian but even Ancelotti has denied that he has any involvement in his improvement, that all it comes down to is hard work from Vinicius. Although I am sure the truth falls somewhere in the middle, his improvement is clear and should be commended. His development at Real Madrid has made many change their minds on the player he could become. When he began the season with three goals, many said he would quickly turn back to the old Vinicius but he has shown that it is not a fluke and that his form is here to stay.

In a Real Madrid side where inconsistency at the Santiago Bernabéu is a sin, Vinicius has shown to have the mentality to be able to center himself and believe in his own ability. He has many great attributes in his pace, dribbling, and creativity but his best is certainly his mentality. His continuous effort and willingness to play every game as its his last and do whatever it takes to help the team. A player that gives you joy to watch no matter what team you support because this is the ‘Vini’ we all wanted, the one with the infectious football, the one who be it the Bernabéu or the backyard, he’d still be smiling and playing as if it’s his last game.

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