Real Madrid’s Future Rests on the Shoulders of Brazilian Starlet Vinicius Jr

Karim Benzema had little offensive support a year ago, and it would have been difficult to win without him. That has altered as a result of Vinicius raising his level of play.

Real Madrid missed out on the league title by two points to Atletico Madrid last season, a rebuilding year during which Eden Hazard missed 32 games due to injury and health issues. Then, under the direction of coach Zinedine Zidane, a tactical plan that had trouble producing goals was rebuilt into a defense-first strategy that depended on Karim Benzema’s exceptional talent. Real Madrid scored 18 fewer goals than third-place Barcelona and had the second-best defense in the league.


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Benzema was completely alone in his efforts to score goals. In league play, he had 30 goals. None of the other players scored more than ten goals, and none of the attackers scored more than seven. One player making a 10-footer may have made all the difference.


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Even though it’s a straightforward request, all Benzema needed was for one guy to come up. Hazard was unable to perform from the sidelines. Vinicius Jr. and Marco Asensio both performed below expectations, while Rodrygo was productive but was unable to keep fit or on the field. The pressure was on Casemiro, Sergio Ramos, or perhaps a midfield strike from Luka Modric.

A Brazilian wonder-kid named Vinicius Jr. has been lighting up for Real Madrid and has finally made the call. He already has nine goals for the season and, after just 14 games, has already eclipsed the six goals he scored across his 49 appearances in all competitions this season.

Vinicius’s surge has meant the difference between first place on the table and a spot among the top four. These margins may not appear significant right now, but they will become clear in June. The group competed without Karim Benzema on Saturday against Elche. A trio of Vinicius, Mariano, and Rodrygo wouldn’t have generated much excitement if it had been used last season, as we remarked on the post-game podcast last night. In a road game against Elche this season, where the squad struggled defensively and only managed an xG of 1.6, Vinicius’ presence was the difference between a win and dropped points. It wouldn’t be a leap to assume that Real Madrid would not have triumphed in this match without Benzema last year.

And I can’t help but think that Vinicius and perhaps Real Madrid in the long run came out ahead in Real Madrid’s “failed attempt” (I use the term loosely for obvious reasons) to sign Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain this summer. Vinny would likely still be in charge if Mbappe had stayed on the right wing, but going this route all but assured it. Vinicius has been an attacking devastation and is the team’s best left winger by default. If Mbappe debuts next season, he will do so at a time when Vinicius’ position is well-known. The strategy would center on Benzema, Vinicius, and Mbappe. Had Real signed Mbappe, that might not have been the case, and as a result, we might not have seen this version of Vinicius — this season, at least.

To entice PSG into a transfer, there were even actual conversations of a Vinicius-Mbappe swap over the summer. It now sounds absurd, and as Lucas Navarrete and I discussed on our podcast on Thursday, even though Mbappe is the superior player, the argument is meaningless given the possibility of having both players in the same starting lineup in the future.

(In hindsight, it’s completely insane that PSG wouldn’t accept some kind of cash plus Vinicius for a player they’ll probably lose for free — but PSG are inexplicably proud of their madness.)

What does the regression to the mean look like at this point? What is Vinicius in his authentic form? How long-lasting is this? We anticipated that after starting the season well, he would cool off. He experienced a two- to three-game slump during which he appeared out of place with the Brazilian National Team, but he quickly recovered. If he maintains this, Cristiano Ronaldo (’06-07), Mohamed Salah (’17-18), Raheem Sterling (’17-18), and Gonzalo Higuain (’08-09) all made comparable strides after having difficulty scoring in years prior. Vinicius was worth every cent if that is the next move he makes.


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Talking about missed shots and goals is almost a disservice to a player who has improved in front of goal and also grown more responsible and skilled in his decision-making. He’s better at everything when the ball is at his feet, it turns out after looking through the statistics this morning:

Undoubtedly, I believe that his goal-scoring and greater decision-making go hand in hand. In this web of statistics, everything feeds off of one another, and his confidence is what holds it all together. I always understood that Vinicius’ difficulties scoring goals had little to do with his technical abilities and had everything to do with what was going through his mind at the time. You can see a goal-scoring assassin if you watch him in practice from last season. But during the game, he would freeze. This season, he is playing the game outside of his mental prison of the previous season, from an aerial perspective where everything is in perfect order.

All of the aforementioned statistics show less touches per 90 than last season, indicating more efficiency and less ball-overthinking. His defensive numbers are all declining overall, but that’s the price you pay for this level of offensive output. For the last third, you can afford to preserve energy. This is made simpler by Mendy’s return, as Vinicius continues to put in significant defensive effort.

I really like this new development: Vinicius has been using the left half-space more frequently as an outlet for his wingbacks. Despite being surrounded by defenders, he moves so well in the box to receive the ball and ekes his way out for either a shot or a cut-back to an open teammate. He doesn’t always rely on blitzing opponents on the wings.

After Real Madrid’s victory over Elche on Saturday night, Carlo Ancelotti told the media that Cristiano Ronaldo was “getting used to playing more centrally.” Which takes time to master since having a one-on-one in the area is different than having one out on the wing.

The trust he has gained may be the best measure of how far he has come. Vinicius played a major role in two crucial goals against Barcelona and Elche. On both occasions, he made the proper play despite it being obscure to onlookers. In the match against Barcelona, he decided against making the simple pass down the flank to David Alaba in favor of a trickier pass to Rodrygo in the center, which allowed Alaba to run as a third man. Against Elche, he took an additional touch, sucked in goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, and hoisted the ball over him from a tight angle rather than delivering a square ball across goal to Mariano.

The future appears more interesting because of something unique that Vinicius Jr. is developing.


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