FEATURE | European Player of the Season, 5th: Vinicius Junior

This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series, as we countdown our ranked top 12 in both categories to name the winners ahead of the Champions League final at the end of the month. Read every profile and see the full ranking right here.

Vinicius Junior deservedly finds himself in Get Football’s top European Player of the Season series after a sensational campaign with Real Madrid. The Brazilian has been the best performer in La Liga alongside his team-mate Karim Benzema but it hasn’t been all plain sailing for the young forward from São Gonçalo. 

In 2020/21, he managed just three goals and three assists in 35 La Liga games. Fast forward 12 months and in 35 league games this season, the 21-year-old has scored 17 goals and registered 10 assists, while putting in some devastating displays in attack.

On 28 November 2021 at the Santiago Bernabéu, Vinicius confirmed he belonged at this level. In the 87th minute on a dark November night, he tees himself up by chesting down a cross-field ball past Lucas Ocampos before driving at goal and shooting from outside the area past Bono and into the top corner to give Madrid the three points. He danced around the corner flag as the Santiago Bernabéu celebrated the late winner over a title rival. 

After the game, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said it was another step towards Vinicius becoming one of the best in the world.

“The important thing is that he has focused on being clinical,” Ancelotti said. “What surprises me is his ability to score. I already knew his individual quality in dribbling and one-on-one play. But now he’s scoring goals, something he didn’t do in the past,” he continued.

And that was the difference, in the space of just a few months, his finishing improved dramatically. He was no longer the raw kid on the left. He was now producing every week for Real Madrid under a coach who is not obsessed with tactics, but with allowing his players to play as they want.

The Italian boss trusts his players to perform. He also asks them for their advice, given everything they have achieved in their careers to date. Ancelotti was recently seen getting the opinions of his trusted lieutenants Toni Kroos and Marcelo with just minutes remaining in extra time in Madrid’s Champions League semi-final second leg with Manchester City.

Just days after Madrid beat Pep Guardiola’s side to reach this year’s Champions League final, Vinicius lit up the Bernabéu once again. This time it was in a 6-0 win over Levante. Full of confidence from so much left wing joy this season, he netted his first hat-trick for Los Blancos.

“My first hat-trick, I’m very happy, especially with this wonderful season I’m having. The coach let me stay on longer so I could score the hat-trick.

“The connection between Karim and I has been very good all season and I hope it stays that way until Karim retires, which I hope will be here. I hope he finishes the year with the Ballon d’Or,” Vinicius told Movistar+ after the game on 12 May.

In April 2021, Benzema spoke about Vinicius. “I believe in him because he has everything to be a success here. I speak a lot to him on and off the pitch. Sometimes I can be hard on him, but that’s for his benefit because I know he can give more.”

Benzema knew what was coming. And Vinicius has benefitted from Benzema being at his very best. On occasion, Benzema has been heard shouting at him to lift his head and look at his team-mates before running towards the opposition goal. What Benzema brings to Real Madrid is priceless when it comes to building attacking moves.

Xabi Alonso could not have defined him better: “Karim is half striker, half playmaker. Many people criticise him for that and I think it’s his greatest virtue. He operates in many different areas: in the box, on the flanks, and behind the pivot, which is where the difference is made”.

Just as Cristiano Ronaldo had him as his strike partner to send him on his way to scoring a club record 451 goals, Vinicius is now experiencing the enormous fortune of having a player like Benzema by his side. One of Vinicius’ main problems before was a lack of pausa – he didn’t know how to stop at the right time and only stopped when he had no choice.

Benzema uses pausa to invite pressure. The French striker has the ability to know how to choose what to do at any given moment. He turns when he has to turn and goes deep when he has to. 

Decision-making has been fundamental in Vinicius’ development. He is now crossing at the right time and shooting at the right time. He started to find the net more and Benzema more by discovering the solutions in the final third.

The synergy between the pair has taken Real Madrid to the Champions League final. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League quarter-final first leg, Vinicius was unplayable as Madrid took an early lead with a Benzema brace.

The Frenchman eventually netted a stunning hat-trick. Vinicius was the creator of the first, sending in a pinpoint cross from the left for Madrid’s number nine to head past Édouard Mendy on a wet night in London. 

At the Etihad Stadium against Premier League champions Manchester City, Vinicius ran from the halfway line after letting the ball roll through Fernandinho’s legs. As Fernandinho’s world caved in, Pep Guardiola fell to his knees on the touchline, barely able to look on as Vinicius raced through on goal to score past Ederson from a tight angle. 

La Liga defenders have also struggled to cope with the movement, speed, skill and nutmegs of the former Flamengo forward this season. 

In 2021/22, Vinicius is top of the La Liga charts for goal-creating actions, players dribbled past, carries into the final third, nutmegs, progressive carries and progressive carrying distance, as per FBref.

Amongst players in Europe’s top-five leagues, he ranks in the 99th percentile per 90 for progressive carries (13.19) and touches in the attacking penalty area (8.92).

Alongside Benzema’s outstanding performances, Vinicius has been the standout player across the season and his displays have helped Real Madrid lift their 35th La Liga title.

Kylian Mbappé’s refusal to join Real Madrid could accelerate Vinicius’ growth. He was able to overcome the scrutiny in previous seasons to produce outstanding numbers in 2021/22.

But the pressure will always be there at Real Madrid. You cannot escape it. The Brazilian is now seen as one of the best players at the club after scoring 21 goals in all competitions this season and will see a much-improved deal at Madrid come his way soon. 

The expectancy wasn’t there at the beginning of the season but it is now and madridistas will be waiting for more Vinicius brilliance in 2022/23. With no Mbappé, he’ll have added responsibility as part of the front line. 

In September 2021, when Madrid were just getting into their groove, Ancelotti said: “He is doing very well, showing his quality and helping the team in attack. He has to continue doing it. At the moment he’s confident and he’s quite calm in front of goal”. 

Ancelotti will have a similar message for Vinicius when Madrid return for pre-season this summer. The Italian, seen posing with a cigar in his mouth and Vinicius at the club’s league title celebrations, will continue to instill confidence in the young forward as he looks to build on a phenomenal season.

Kieran Quaile

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