Whatever else happens to Santiago Solari during his managerial reign at Real Madrid – and, let’s face it, that is a million-dollar question – he will always be remembered for at least one thing: being the coach who launched Vinicius Junior’s senior career.
Before Solari took over, the young Brazilian was barely playing or even earning selection into the matchday squad. Indeed, one of the principle criticisms of Julen Lopetegui was that he continually overlooked the high-profile summer signing from Flamengo.
As soon as Solari was installed, however, one of his first moves was to promote the player he had spent the previous few months working alongside with the club’s B team, and now it appears that Vinicius has rapidly become a fixture in the side: Saturday’s home win over Sevilla was the 18 year-old’s fifth consecutive start, and none of the many debates over Solari’s leadership abilities are currently centred around his decision to place so much trust in such a young player.
However, it is also the case that Solari is working in exceptional circumstances, with Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio both out injured. And when they return to action – which should be pretty soon – the question of whether Vinicius should retain his place in the team will become a dilemma for the coach.
It will not be an easy situation to resolve. On the one hand, it could easily be argued that Vinicius has done more than enough to remain a starter. He has shown regular flashes of inspiration, looking especially dangerous during the first half of last weekend’s victory at Real Betis and also delivering a number exciting bursts in the win against Sevilla.
In fact, the eventual 2-0 scoreline this weekend should not overlook the fact that Solari’s team desperately struggled to create chances from open play, relying on a long-range blockbuster from Casemiro and a last-minute breakaway from Luka Modric – which came as a result of poor defending – to find the net.
Other than that, there was plenty of possession in midfield but precious little penetration, with visiting keeper Tomas Vaclik only forced into a handful of routine saves. And with associative play badly lacking, by far the biggest threat to Sevilla’s penalty area was the incisive dribbling ability of Vinicius. Without him, the attack looked toothless.
Clearly, this is a young man with a big future. He is fast, direct and skilful, and already with enough confidence to demand plenty of possession and then attempt to use it effectively with purposeful progressive play. He rarely settles for a simple square pass to retain possession, instead always looking to be positive and attack, attempting to destabilise the opposition defence and create chances.
As much as this can ever be said about a teenager with only a handful of senior games under his belt, Vinicius is the real deal, and the ease with which he has become a fan favourite suggests he can be Real Madrid’s poster boy for many years to come.
However, it’s not as simple as saying that Vinicius is here for good and must be kept in the team even when everyone is fit, because there is also a serious downside to his game: a lack of end product.
During his nine league outings so far, the Brazilian has only scored one goal, and registered no assists. Even that goal is very generously awarded, coming against Real Valladolid with a badly mishit shot which would have hit the corner flag before it took a massive deflection.
He also makes a lot of mistakes, either through misreading the intentions of his teammates or over-elaborating in possession and allowing the opposition to make an easy tackle – against Sevilla, for example, he lost the ball on eight occasions, twice as many as any other Madrid player.
This is only to be expected of such a young and inexperienced player, and it would be unrealistic to expect goals and assists galore and careful use of possession while Vinicius is still finding his feet as a professional player.
He will only work out how to turn his often scintillating approach play into chances and shots, and avoid committing careless turnovers, with more games. In time, we can be optimistic that he will smooth out the rough edges and become a truly productive player as well as an exciting one.
However, in the next few months Solari will be hard pressed to justify giving him more games if it means keeping more proven performers like Bale and Asensio on the sidelines. When the going gets truly serious with titles at stake – and although La Liga is probably beyond them, two cup competitions are very much up for grabs – allowing a teenager the luxury of serving an apprenticeship would be a big gamble.
The obvious thing to do, then, would be to leave Vinicius on the bench and start with two of Bale, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez. But that would deprive the team of a player who, right now, looks like their best bet to open up opposition defences and it would also risk slowing down or even reversing his progress.
For the last month, Vinicius has been Madrid’s best attacking player and he does not deserve to be dropped. But can Solari afford to keep him in the team when the treatment room has been cleared? A big decision awaits.
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