With every viral clip, it became clear that Vinicius Junior was clear for Real Madrid’s first team, not their B-team, Castilla, in the lower leagues. Julen Lopetegui couldn’t see it, though. The Brazilian teenager, signed for close to £40 million from Flamengo, had to wait until a change of management, and Santiago Solari’s appointment, for his chance.
Boy has he taken that chance. A few weeks ago, Real Madrid looked to be in crisis. The home defeat suffered to Real Sociedad at the start of the month led some to question whether Solari would even make it to the end of the season. Perhaps in desperation Vinicius was drafted in as a first team figure and he has nailed down that place since.
In fact, Real Madrid have become dependent on Vinicius in recent weeks. At a time when the injury list has lengthened on a near weekly basis, with Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas all spending time on the sideline over the past month, the teenager has made himself undroppable.
At 18 years old, there are still raw edges to Vinicius’ game. There are times when his inexperience is exposed, like when he puts a shot out for a throw-in rather than testing the goalkeeper. However, even in the space of a few weeks Vinicius has ironed out some of those kinks. He has been remarkably consistent.
Vinicius is solving problems that have dogged Real Madrid all season long. Most notably, he has forged an understanding with Karim Benzema, bringing the best out of the French striker, getting the notoriously tough-to-please Santiago Bernabeu faithful off his back. Against Girona on Thursday night, it was this relationship that carried Real Madrid to victory.
Solari now has something to ponder when Asensio and Bale do return from injury. Vinicius is the spark that has reignited Real Madrid’s attack and the vertical mobility that left with Cristiano Ronaldo has returned. Things are finally clicking for Solari after a difficult start to life in the Santiago Bernabeu dugout and that is in no small part thanks to Vinicius and the impact he has made.
Ordinarily, one would expect Vinicius to suffer a dip in form at one point or another. That is, after all, what comes as part of the development of young players. However, Vinicius isn’t like other young players. He plays with a confidence and a swagger that belies his age. Not many teenagers would take so easily to playing for Real Madrid, the biggest club in the world, at a time of such toxicity.
“Hope is called Vinicius,” exclaimed the front page of Marca, Spain’s most popular daily sports paper, after just a few cameo appearances from the Brazilian. “Vinicius transmits joy, he has always had talent but to show it at the Bernabeu speaks volumes of his ability,” gushed Solari, who owes a lot to the teenager. “He is brave, he takes players on and destroys defences in a way that we see less and less these days.”
Indeed, Vinicius provides something of a throwback. It’s in the way he plays, in the way he commits defenders and opens up space by beating opponents. But at the same time as being a throwback, he is a vision of Real Madrid’s future. This is a transitional time for the Spanish club and Vinicius is the sort of player they need to carry them through that transition.
For now, though, Solari is charged with salvaging a season that not so long ago looked set for ruin. It might be too late for Real Madrid to claw their back into the title race, but the Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies are still there to be claimed. If they are to achieve some redemption in the second half of the season, Vinicius will likely be required to keep his current levels up. He is quickly becoming the new face of Real Madrid.
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