How Vinicius Jnr can go from overgrown teenager to Ballon d’Or winner

Ryan Baldi
Vinicius Jnr and the Real Madrid badge.
Vinicius Jnr and the Real Madrid badge.

Vinicius Jr is 23 years old but he plays like the best 17-year-old in the world.

Sometimes this works in his – and Real Madrid’s – favour; there is a youthful fearlessness to his game. It allows him to receive the ball to feet and attack his marker, no matter who that may be – and it’s often, in high-leverage matches in La Liga or the Champions League, one of the best defenders around. Applying the flair and technical skill apparently baked into the rusks future Brazilian footballers are fed as babies, he is a joy to behold when isolated one-v-one with a full-back.

With his close control and inventiveness, no space is too tight; no defender’s attention is unshakeable. Vinicius could skip past three players inside a phone box.

That same intrepid exuberance has allowed the Madrid star to make his biggest impacts in games of the highest magnitude, against opponents of the uppermost calibre. He scored the only goal in the 2022 Champions League final against Liverpool. He’d scored away at Manchester City in the first leg of the semis that year, too.

This season alone, he has scored four goals and provided an assist against Barcelona, including a hat-trick in the Spanish Super Cup final in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He scored the decisive goal in a Champions League last-16 tie against RB Leipzig, registered two assists against City in the quarter-finals and, last week, scored twice as Carlo Ancelotti’s side secured a 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena to kick off their semi-final showdown.

Yet still – and it’s a scary thought for someone who has won two Champions Leagues and two La Liga titles, and could well add to each of those tallies by the end of the month – there are levels of performance remaining for Vinicius to unlock.

“He’s the best in the world,” Ancelotti said of Vinicius after the Brazilian scored and assisted twice in a 4-0 victory over Girona in February. It was a hyperbolic remark by a manager extolling the virtues of one of his own players – evidenced by the fact he went on to name Jude Bellingham, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga and Toni Kroos as the next-best players on the planet.

The title of the world’s best player actually belongs to someone who could be under Ancelotti’s charge at the Bernabeu next season: Kylian Mbappe.

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Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland, Harry Kane, Virgil van Dijk, team-mate Bellingham and even a 36-year-old, MLS-crushing Lionel Messi probably still hold a stronger claim to that distinction, too. But Vinicius is on the cusp of that echelon. Driving through it will require a maturation in the slightly underdeveloped areas of his teen-like game.

Madrid signed Vinicius from Flamengo in May 2016 for €46 million. He had to remain in Brazil for just over a year – during which time he actually was the best 17-year-old in the world – before he could legally join Los Blancos after his 18th birthday. When he arrived in the Spanish capital, the teenager showed flashes of the electric dribbling ability and searing speed that continue to characterise his game, along with a knack for working his way into scoring positions.

But over his first three seasons with the club, Vinicius was an incredibly frustrating finisher. He scored just seven La Liga goals in that time and would fluff a finish wide or straight into the goalkeeper’s arms as often as he’d thrill with moments of quick-footed skill.

He has remedied that issue over the last three seasons while also adding a new element to his game in his ability to affect play centrally with well-timed off-ball runs in behind high defences. The results are evident in hauls of 22, 23 and 21 goals over the three campaigns.

Vinicius’ first strike at the Allianz Arena perfectly exemplified the sharpening of those skills, as he burst beyond the Bayern backline and was picked out by a perfectly calibrated Toni Kroos through ball before finishing unerringly past Manuel Neuer.

But a statistical plateau he has encountered points to where the next phase of Vinicius’ ascent must begin.

A total of 27 goal contributions (17 goals, 10 assists) for the 2021/22 La Liga season marked a steep uptick from his previous productivity. But that was followed with a more modest 19 (10 goals, nine assists) the following term and, so far 18 (13 goals, five assists) this season.

There is more to Vinicius’ game than goals and assists, of course. He is perhaps the single-greatest counter-attacking threat in football for the speed and decisiveness with which he breaks forward from deep and the sheer acreage he can eat up with the ball at his feet. And his ability to beat multiple defenders in an instant means the opposition can never full relax when he is on the pitch. He has become more adept, too, at overcoming being man-marked, a tactic with which Barcelona manager Xavi had successfully nullified him previously.

Reaching the level of the Ballon d’Or frontrunners, especially for an attacking player, is often in large part a numbers game, though – he can thank Messi and former Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo for that.

Where the on-field youthfulness of Vinicius’s still-developing arsenal veers negative is the need for greater consistency across whole seasons, to go from a scorer of big-time goals to a big-time goal-scorer. A run of 15 goals and six assists in all competitions since mid-January suggests he’s beginning to make that jump.

And, it must be said, to have attained even the level of consistency he currently produces while so often the target of vile racist abuse from opposition fans is a marvel in itself and speaks to the impressive strength of character the young man possesses.

“I just want to play football but it’s hard to move forward,” the Madrid forward said in an emotional press conference ahead of an international friendly against Spain in March. “I feel less and less like playing. It never crossed my mind [to leave Spain] because if I leave Spain I give the racists exactly what they want.

“I will stay because that way the racists can continue to see my face more and more. I’m a bold player, I play for Real Madrid and we win a lot of titles and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.”

The international stage is a world still unconquered by Vinicius, too. Judged purely on talent, the Bernabeu star is the heir apparent to Neymar – now 32 and recovering from a torn cruciate knee ligament – as the face and focal point of the Selecao.

So far, though, he has just three goals from 28 caps for his country. There was debate among Brazil’s coaching staff over whether he should have been a starter for the five-time champions at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. He has only twice completed a full 90 minutes in a competitive international and he requires more than twice as many minutes to produce a goal or assist in the famous gold and green as he does in the immaculate white of Madrid.

The progressive steps Vinicius has continued to make at club level have yet to materialise with Brazil. He has the perfect opportunity to put that right this summer. With Neymar likely absent, he will be the star attraction in Brazil’s quest for a 10th Copa America.

“I’ll stay here, playing for the best club in the world and scoring goals and winning titles,” he said in defiance of the racists who target him. “And people will have to keep seeing my face for a long time.”

If his new-found consistency can be combined with a mastery of the international game, Vinicius Jr’s wide smile will be seen atop the Ballon d’Or podiums, too.

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