When the general criticism of Vinicius Junior was at its most misplaced, most impatient, the main theme was about his decision making. It turns out that not only were those myopic opinions completely wrong about what this clever, explosive Brazilian was capable of on the pitch, they’d completely ignored what a fantastic decision he made, aged just 16, when he opted to sign for Real Madrid and reject Barcelona.
What a brutal choice for a young lad from Rio de Janeiro: to try to emulate Ronaldinho and Neymar, or Roberto Carlos and Casemiro? To go play with Lionel Messi or join a club in the midst of a Champions League three-peat?
My point is that Vinicius was the player they all wanted. Spain‘s two biggest clubs were fighting tooth and nail to win his loyalty. But he got his decision spot on: he gave evidence, right then, that however raw he might be, however much people’s initial impressions of him were hampered by how he sounds or looks (not exactly cosmopolitan and very youthful), he had gumption to go with his playing genius. Back to that in a second or two.
Right now, Vinicius is the darling of Los Blancos‘ affections. He continues to produce goal and assist numbers that either compare favourably with, or beat, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age. He’s propelling his team forwards in both LaLiga and the Champions League and, what’s more, he’s in line for an improved contract, better wages and an untouchable buyout clause.
Vinicius hasn’t merely had a powerful start to the season — capped by spells of absolute magnificence against Shakhtar Donetsk in Kiev, Barcelona in the Camp Nou Clasico and then two sublime goals at Elche — he’s scoring and playing with more authority and regularity than at any time in his senior career. He’s occupied 12 of the past 24 covers of either Diario Marca or Diario AS, which, combined, reach many tens of millions of readers across that 12-day spell. That’s Messi and Ronaldo territory.
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My theme, not to belabour it, is Vinicius’ notable ability for decision making under pressure. And two of the past three games have been brilliant showcases for just that.
Away to Elche at the weekend, not only does he tuck away two divine goals, they bear closer examination.
For the first, he’s sent into the box by a lovely flicked assist from Mariano. But Vinicius is on the left side of the penalty area and if he shoots first time, rather than cutting back onto his right, he’s going to be finishing off his less favoured, less powerful foot. His decision making, in a split second, is good. He calculates that the flick from Mariano has been so unexpected that keeper Kiko Casilla will be scrambling to find the correct position, and that if he strikes low and diagonally, the ball will probably come across the keeper’s stance too soon for him to cope. Bingo on both decisions. Top-class finish.
The second shows some of his genius, but the innate stuff. The finish is athletic, inventive and requires a talent, at such speed and such close proximity to an onrushing keeper, that is possessed by very few. But where Vinicius’ decision making needs applauding is when the ball is at the feet of Toni Kroos.
The Germany midfielder has seen a 25-metre volleyed pass through a cluster of players to Luka Modric, free in a pocket of space outside the Elche penalty area. Vinicius is out wide left, but he anticipates. While the ball, hit first time by Kroos, is still 10 metres away from reaching Modric, Madrid’s new superstar is already on the move. He’s leaning into a sprint and it’s perfectly timed. When the Ballon d’Or-winning Croatia international takes and turns, he has a perfect vision of Vinicius, onside, making a burst into the box and — hey, presto — the pass and the finish are, literally, glorious.
It’s part of a wider decision that the striker took many, many months ago. Vinicius saw, and was encouraged to understand, that if he ceded possession to some of the world-class players around him — particularly Karim Benzema, Modric, Casemiro and Kroos — rather than following his natural instinct to go mano a mano against his direct opponent every time, he’d get the ball back, with interest, more often than not.
Madrid’s win in the Clasico was another example of just this.
For Madrid’s first goal, when David Alaba fed Vinicius the ball, and Madrid’s mercurially gifted winger did his “Now you see the ball, now you don’t” trick on Oscar Mingueza, it’s easy to imagine the explosion of adrenaline and endorphins surging through his mind and body. For many wingers, it’s what they live for. The perfect street-football moment when you put it all on the line, go toe to toe with a direct rival and leave him gasping for both breath and comprehension.
There was a time when that surge of energy sometimes overtook Vinicius’ powers of judgement and he’d feel like his feet had wings. This time Vinicius immediately took a second to think. Instead of haring down the left himself, he switched play with a lovely cross-field pass to Rodrygo. And he did it for a reason. Like dominos falling when the first of a row is pushed over, Barcelona’s players shuffled over towards Madrid’s right, opening up a huge space in front of Alaba in full flight back on the left side and … goal.
But, back to Vinicius’ decision making off the pitch, when he was a juvenile with the jewels of the world being thrown at him.
Vinicius Junior is in the form of the life for Real Madrid, proving his decision to move to the Spanish capital was the right one. Getty Images
Did you notice, in the 21st minute of the Clasico, what happened when Vinicius lured Mingueza into a challenge that only just avoided giving away a penalty? Angry at what he considered a dive, Jordi Alba went nose to nose and, then, forehead to forehead with Vinicius. Things weren’t far off a red-card situation if either man had nodded his forehead forward, or raised a hand to push the other’s head away. However it wasn’t a Real Madrid player who tried to convince Vinicius that it was really important not to be provoked, it was Alba’s fellow Catalan Gerard Pique.
Pique loves to win and doesn’t mind provoking the odd opponent, so to see him trying to keep Madrid’s star player on the pitch might seem pretty strange. But Barcelona’s No. 3 has an abiding affection for Vinicius and has testified about how close the Brazilian came to wearing Blaugrana instead of Blanco.
Shortly before the Clasico, Pique revealed to his online influencer buddy Ibai Llanos that: “Vinicius has huge talent. Did you know he was so close to joining Barca? Madrid came in and offered him double. I called Vinicius personally before the deal was announced because we were going to sort out how to welcome him into our dressing room. And during that phone call, he admitted that a deal had been practically done with Barca, but right at the last minute he joined Madrid because they offered him everything.”
Barcelona’s Brazilian talent spotter Andre Cury goes with Pique’s version of events — he would say this, wouldn’t he? — that he and the Catalan club felt betrayed, and that the only thing that won the Battle for Vinicius was Madrid investing shock-and-awe money. But the player himself, and this is the version that wins my attention, has always explained it quite differently.
In this column last year, I reported Vinicius making it crystal clear that it had been the “project” and his “development” that had been highest in his mind when the financial benefits of both offers were balanced out. In fact, he still claims that Madrid, eventually, won his signature while offering a lower financial incentive than Barcelona.
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Vinicius has spoken about this on the radio, stating: “Marcelo came to Madrid aged just 18, and played. [Marco] Asensio was being given game time and it felt like young players were being trusted at Madrid.
“In decision making, I’ve always tried to think about what’s best for my development. This looked like a very good project, they promised that I would be given a chance to learn and to develop.
“All this helped me choose Madrid over Barcelona. Barcelona wanted to pay us more but I spoke to Marcelo and Casemiro and that made me clearer that it wasn’t about the most money but about the right choice.”
So, here he is. Still, surprisingly, to convince Brazil manager Tite, who it would seem either knows better than everyone else or is a nitwit. But think of the joyous cartwheels Carlo Ancelotti and Florentino Perez must have done when they saw the Brazil squad and learned that Vinicius would have the chance to stay behind in Spain’s capital and rest up for the surge of games from now until Christmas.
Vinicius made the right decision five years ago, when it would have been simple to accept the bigger financial deal and to believe that playing with Messi was too attractive to reject. Instead, he focused on Perez’s policy of finding and signing the best young talents and believed that the Bernabeu was fertile ground for his fledging anarchic genius.
Looking at the two clubs’ present situations, weighing up the advancements in Vinicius’ play, and appreciating the quality of football we are witnessing from him, you’d really have to say: “Good decision, son.”