There haven’t been many more important signings in Real Madrid’s very recent history than Vinicius Junior.
After struggling for consistency in the opening decade of the 21st century, a group of players led by Cristiano Ronaldo took them to heights comparable to the team of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano in the 1950s.
Standards at the Santiago Bernabeu are extremely high and the slightest drop can be scrutinised incessantly. As a result, almost overnight, that team began to look old and in need of refreshment. Ronaldo had departed in the summer of 2018, joining Juventus after the last Champions League win.
At the height of their transitional phase, they were knocked out in the last 16 to Ajax the following year; last season, they regained something of their best level to win La Liga, but they are usually judged most harshly in Europe. Once again, they were well off the pace.
Replacing Ronaldo directly was impossible; their usual approach unviable. In the past, including when they bought the Portuguese winger from Manchester United in 2009, they would get the very best players available to them whatever the cost. Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, both of Paris Saint-Germain, were floated as possibilities, but restricted finances meant neither moved beyond that.
Instead, president Florentino Perez had set about signing younger players who could be moulded. Vinicius had been signed as a teenager from Brazilian club Flamengo in 2017 for €46million, but he was officially unveiled as a first team player a year later, as Ronaldo was heading out.
Another teenager from Brazil, Rodrygo, soon followed. In 2019, a more experienced, obvious candidate to fill Ronaldo’s boots arrived in the form of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. The path for Vinicius has never been blocked, though; Zidane has looked to integrate him in the side and develop him into a player capable of guiding Real back to the level they were at just a few years ago.
He is just 20 years of age; it is harsh and difficult to judge him, but if you are good enough you are old enough, especially in a pressure cooker environment such as Real Madrid. He is yet to pull up any trees in the Spanish capital and only has one international cap to his name.
On Saturday night, with Madrid locked in a tight game away at Real Betis, Zidane didn’t look to Vinicius in order to change things. Sergio Ramos’ penalty secured a 3-2 victory with eight minutes to go, but that spoke volumes, especially after he had only been withdrawn in stoppage time the previous week as the team limped to a 0-0 draw at Real Sociedad.
In his defence, neither Rodrygo nor, more alarmingly, Hazard, have stood up to be counted either. Madrid look rather disjointed in general, and perhaps their title win is a little misleading, given they only managed to stay marginally more consistent than a Barcelona side on the verge of a complete meltdown. They were hardly spectacular themselves.
Sooner or later, Vinicius has to show more. The early signs from this season are not good, albeit judgement should stay reserved for a few more weeks yet. Against Real Sociedad, he attempted one cross and one dribble; though he did score the winning goal in the narrow, uninspiring triumph over Valladolid, it was off the bench and his overall display still needs work.
He isn’t expected to be taking games by the scruff of the neck like Ronaldo so often did just yet, but he is yet to average a rating higher than 6.6 in La Liga, and he is in his third season. Goals and assists have consistently remained in the low signal digits, too. There is very little about his Real Madrid career to date which suggests he is ready to be the players they hoped he would be.
It isn’t about being the finished product, nobody can expect that of someone so young, but is he hitting the levels expected of him at this stage of his career? Given the money paid for him, it is difficult to argue that he is.
The new era at Real Madrid was always likely to take time to come together, especially this one because it involved a different approach of looking to develop their own Galacticos rather than importing them. Young players have not been nurtured particularly well at the club with ultimate ‘win now’ philosophy. Vinicius is a player with undoubted ability, but it is easy to get drowned out by the sheer magnitude of his surroundings.
It is far too early to be writing him off; the best is undoubtedly yet to come. There has to be evidence of progression, and he hasn’t put in any real statement performances during two full seasons. Questions are being asked as to whether Real Madrid are getting the player they paid for.