Vinicius Junior: Making Great Strides but Not Ready for Real Madrid Life Yet

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2018

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 13: Vinicius Junior of Flamengo reacts during the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana 2017 final between Flamengo and Independiente at Maracana stadium on December 13, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Just under a year ago, Vinicius Junior set tongues wagging with a series of earth-shattering displays for Brazil at the South American Under-17 Football Championship.

He showcased speed and a rarely seen dribbling ability, a penchant for a spectacular finish and a quite incredible mastery of tricks and flicks on the way to scooping the best player and top goalscorer awards—in addition to the trophy and gold medal for his team's victory.

Real Madrid liked what they saw and wasted little time, agreeing to pay his contract's €45 million (£39.6 million) buyout clause and striking a deal with Flamengo that would see Vinicius Junior arrive in Spain in either 2018 or 2019, depending on his growth and progression.

We are hurtling toward the earliest possible date on which the Brazilian can trade continents, so the question must be asked: Is he ready for the biggest of next steps?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 23: Vinicius Junior of Flamengo looks the ball during a match between Flamengo and Botafogo part of Copa do Brasil Semi-Finals 2017 at Maracana Stadium on August 23, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Get
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Having starred for the Selecao's under-17s, Vinicius Junior only had to wait a few months until he was drip-fed into Flamengo's senior side. A debut off the bench against Atletico Mineiro came in May, and a mini run of starts arrived in June.

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For the most part, though, he was limited to 20- to 30-minute appearances from the bench in 2017. Those cameos were frequent, if a little light on minutes, but a commitment was made to regularly involve him. He was even introduced in both legs of the Copa Sudamericana final against Independiente at the end of 2017—a tie Flamengo lost 3-2 on aggregate.

This year, that tide has turned for the better. Coach Paulo Cesar Carpegiani has awarded Vinicius Junior more starts (three) than appearances off the bench (two) during this year's Rio State Championship—Brazil's regional-based precursor to the Serie A season—and the 17-year-old has responded with a pair of goals and some encouraging performances.

Credit: Premiere

The competition isn't of the highest quality, but it is positive development in relation to Vinicius Junior's exposure to first-team football.

As a result, these first few months of 2018 represent a crucial juncture in the 17-year-old's career. Having been trusted with more playing time, and given the chance to start games rather than end them, Real Madrid's decision-makers have had the chance to assess him properly—rather than when he's taking advantage of tired legs in the closing stages of contests.

They get to see whether the skills they fell in love with in 2017 can be transferred to the senior stage this year, how he will cope against significantly better defenders, whether his confidence drains after a few early missteps, whether he can influence games in the same way and whether he's added anything new to his repertoire.

January's matches against Cabofriense, Bangu and Vasco da Gama revealed a confident character whose playing level has clearly risen. He scored against Cabofriense and assisted brilliantly against Bangu, mixing in trademark moves with new ones not previously seen when he rose to relative stardom in 2017.

Credit: Premiere

The goal against Cabofriense exemplified something he's added to his game: a predatory back-post threat. His ability to time and angle a run into the box—therefore creating a corridor of space in front of the full-back for him to attack—paid dividends against the Tricolor, and the move has almost brought him joy against others too.

The assist against Bangu was far closer to the player Real Madrid first saw. Picking the ball up on the right flank, he dribbled through a chain of three players before squaring it for striker Lincoln to tap home. Speed, mesmerising agility and impressive penalty-box awareness entwined.

The shimmies and feints, the stepovers and take-ons, are being delivered on a more glamorous stage. It's a big box ticked; it should satisfy any mild concerns anyone may have had that Vinicius Junior was simply an under-17 bully.

Credit: Premiere

But there are still times when he's too individualistic. The crowd roars when he nutmegs defenders and slaloms around midfielders, but there's still an element of "I'll do a trick first and then look for my teammates" a little too often.

That concept of how to play in a team is important, and even the most talented raw players can fail should they lack it—Adama Traore is a prime example of this.

The first thing Vinicius Junior did when he came on against Botafogo recently was trap himself up against the sideline and attempt an elaborate backheel to escape. It went straight out of play.

You expect those mishaps to disappear with experience, and it's important to remember he's still a kid with plenty of growing to do. For him to have only one notable flaw in his game is remarkable, and it's a reminder of why Real Madrid were happy to enter negotiations based on one tournament performance on a distant continent.

But it's also an indication he's not ready to move to the Santiago Bernabeu this year. There's no shame in that. It doesn't make him a bad investment, and sensibility must reign supreme. Playing time is like gold dust to players at this age, and it's a particularly useful cure for the kind of issues Vinicius Junior is facing.

He's not even an automatic starter for Flamengo. This year has seen an uplift in playing time, but there's strong competition for places, and it remains to be seen where Vinicius Junior stands once the Serie A season begins in April.

"If he has not even managed to establish himself here, it's hard to believe he will break through in a star-studded cast like Real Madrid's anytime soon," Flamengo fan Matheus Sampaio told Bleacher Report. 

Binho Rascao added: "He is the best talent to hail from Brazil since Neymar left [in 2013]. But he's still a 17-year-old who needs to be shaped."

Credit: Premiere

There are questions over his maturity—particularly in the wake of his recent crybaby celebration, directed toward Botafogo fans—but he's a teenager playing and scoring against a rival. His actions brought derision from some quarters, even forcing Neymar to publicly defend him, per AS.

Because of the hype, the past 11 months have represented a tumultuous start to Vinicius Junior's professional footballing career. The questions over his future, the furore over his celebration and the amount of attention he's attracted have made things difficult.

But separating all of that from his on-pitch offerings, and judging him by the strides he's making on grass, it's clear he's being gently ushered along the right track.

There's no reason to speed that trajectory up unnecessarily; the next step should be a calendar year as a Flamengo starter, not a summer switch to begin life as a Galactico prematurely.



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