The South American Under-17 Football Championship is the ultimate breeding ground for prodigious South American talents, as the best 16- and 17-year-olds from up and down the continent commence battle over the course of a frantic, action-packed month of football.
The 2017 edition has just finished, with Brazil romping to their 12th title in emphatic fashion thanks to an aggressive defence, a clever midfield and a rapier-like attack. They won seven and drew two of their nine games, kept a clean sheet in their last four matches and scored an astonishing 17 goals in the final stage alone.
Naturally, highlight reels and headlines have emanated from the competition, fuelled by the large contingent of football followers who devote time and interest to unearthing the uber-talented stars of tomorrow. Brazil have several of those, but one stood out: Vinicius Junior.
Standing in front of the cameras, biting his medal while juggling three trophies (tournament victory, best player and top goalscorer), people sat up and took notice. Despite not playing as a striker, he outscored everyone else (seven goals) and added three assists to boot.
The key to his success was simple: Coach Carlos Amadeu's use of him was excellent (as were his tactics in general), making the most of his skill set and putting him in a position to succeed. This wasn’t a Brazil side that coasted by on talent alone; there's always going to be a measure of that with the Samba Stars, but they had a game plan and carried it out in brutally effective fashion.
That game plan, first and foremost, involved releasing Vinicius Junior over the top of the opposing defence as often as possible. Playing primarily off the left flank in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid system, Brazil utilised his precocious physique and immense speed to great effect, sending him steaming in behind full-backs to chase accurate passes.
The one generally lifting the balls in was Alan Souza, who closely compares to Manchester City’s Brahim Diaz in size, skill and technique, and it was his perfect passing that gave Vinicius Junior the advantage with every dart.
He ran relentlessly at full-backs, latching on to balls and shooting or cutting inside to switch play. His strength made him difficult to dispossess, and when drifting infield, he showed he plays with his head up and can link with team-mates well.
By the final stage, teams were doing whatever it took to bring Vinicius Junior down as far away from goal as possible. He drew fouls every five minutes but soldiered on, nipping in behind and stretching the pitch vertically. In the final match, a 5-0 win over Chile, right-back Gaston Zuniga was booked for his third foul inside 20 minutes and spent the rest of the game petrified of offering a foot.
Once in position in the final third, Vinicius Junior's soft feet, good balance, ambitious shooting and eye-popping ability to change direction while dribbling laid the foundations for the damage caused. Of his seven goals, two were composed finishes, one a seemingly impossible, lifted effort from outside the box and one an instinctive lob to punish a goalkeeper who'd been too reckless in rushing out.
Admittedly, throughout the tournament, there was an element of boom or bust to his play, as his preferred move is to knock the ball into space, past a defender and speed past them. There's room for error there, and he judged those wrong multiple times per game. But crucially, when he lost the ball, he worked back down the sideline to help his left-back.
In order to escape close attention and double-marking, Amadeu allowed him to drift inward for periods of games in order to find space elsewhere. He did so with aplomb, appearing every inch a No. 10 when playing centrally between the lines, even playing some cutting through balls he'd have loved to latch on to himself.
Credit must also go to the No. 9, Lincoln, who played what was at times a false-nine role and interpreted the movements of his fellow attackers brilliantly while also chipping in with five goals.
The question moving forward inevitably relates to how good Vinicius Junior can become. Are we looking at a future Ballon d’Or recipient, or will he fizzle out like so many before him?
It must be reminded that while this tournament has laid the foundations for some extremely successful careers—Philippe Coutinho, Casemiro (both 2009) and Marquinhos (2011) all attest to that—the vast majority fall away into obscurity.
Indeed, the list of the four top scorers in this tournament before Vinicius Junior represents a mixed, somewhat disappointing bundle. Leandro (2015) is 18 and has just moved to Napoli so can't be judged, but 2013's top marksman, Franco Acosta, is 21 and stuck in Villarreal's B team and 2011's, Juan Cruz Mascia, has never left Uruguay. Colombia's Edwin Cardona, who led the goalscoring chart in 2009, is an excellent attacking midfielder and saves the list a little face.
The reason? The competition presents something of a false economy. Youth football is incredibly different to its senior equivalent, and those who dominate at this level don't always transfer their skills and talent to the bigger stage. In Vinicius Junior's case, his size and speed can be considered abnormal for his age, so caution must be sounded when projecting him for stardom because it's easier for him to "bully" those who aren't as developed.
But that said, he flashed ludicrous quality, presence of mind, a penchant for an incredible finish that comes to only the most talented and then added a little graft and awareness too.
Showing an ability to evade close attention and perform to a similarly high level in a different position—to the degree that he was essentially a No. 9 for certain passages of play—was a tipping point; it ticks the final few boxes on the scout's notepad, enticing you to believe he's capable of emulating the best in the business.