LaLiga 2018-19: How Vinícius Jr. is filling the Cristiano Ronaldo void at Real Madrid
'The Kind is dead, long live the King.' This is a phrase usually reserved for the demise of a monarch, but there has been a different changing of the guard at the Santiago Bernabéu this season. And it is the teen sensation Vinícius Júnior who has emerged as the surprise replacement to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Players like Gareth Bale and Isco were expected to step into the spotlight that had previously been reserved for the Portuguese talisman over the course of the last decade. But while his move to Juventus has changed the dynamic of this Real Madrid side, a new hero appears set to inherit his mantle.
Fearless with the exuberance of youth
It is no surprise to see Vinícius Júnior play without fear. He was subjected to the passion and pressure of the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A as a 16-year-old with Flamengo, where he displayed all the qualities of a player arriving on the stage that he was always destined for.
A €46 million price tag and a move to the Spanish capital has failed to knock him off his upward trajectory. And while former Los Blancos manager Julen Lopetegui had a long-term plan for his precocious teen prodigy, he did not last long enough to reap the benefit of his conservative foresight.
Instead, it is his successor, Santiago Solari, who has entrusted the young Brazilian to become the face of a new era at the club, and his faith is being rewarded. On Sunday evening, Vinícius Júnior put in a man-of-the-match performance in the 3-0 win over Deportivo Alavés, complementing his part in the build-up for Karim Benzema’s opener with a well-taken goal of his own in the second half.
But while his technical ability is clear for everyone to see, it is the confidence portrayed by Vinícius Júnior that sets him apart from his senior peers. The weight of expectation at the Santiago Bernabéu has broken many players in the past, and will do so again in the future. This is a time of transition at this club, and no place to blood a teenager. But Vinícius Júnior is embracing his opportunity.
The strength to play without fear
To shine at Real Madrid requires certain strength of character, and it will be intriguing to see how Vinícius Júnior reacts when things do not go his way. There is no place to hide, and his performances are already exposing the aforementioned senior figures who were expected to become the natural successors to Ronaldo.
On Sunday, Bale cut a largely lost figure on the right, and mustered few opportunities when he switched to the left in the second half. It was significant and poignant that Solari chose to replace Vinícius Júnior with Isco late in the match; the universal applause for his contribution established him above the player taking his place on the field.
The departure of Ronaldo to Turin has provided Vinícius Júnior with his chance, and it is a credit to Solari that he has shown faith in someone so young. Playing with a free-flowing confidence and showing a vision for the game above his years, it is clear that Vinicius will have a bright future for both club and country, despite their respective levels of expectancy. His technical attributes will inevitably endear him to both sets of demanding fans.
Watching the emergence of this free-spirited talent is a privilege that must be savoured. What appeared destined to be a season to forget following the sacking of Lopetegui could now prove to be a defining one, purely through the elevation of Vinícius Júnior. He is quickly reaching a level that will complement and expose his peers in equal measure.
Acceptance of the Madridistas
Of course, emulating the achievements of Ronaldo at the Santiago Bernabéu is a different challenge completely. Vinícius Júnior is still many appearances, goals and years away from reaching such an elevated status. But he has filled the creative void, and that in itself is enough to endear him to the Madridistas who crave to see their team represented by attacking brilliance.
While he takes the first steps in building his own career, Vinícius Júnior could also end a few careers - such has been the nature of his immediate impression. His flair and confidence in his attacking wide position are already forcing comparisons with the likes of Bale and Isco. However, they have experienced tough times in Madrid and know how difficult it can be, and have subsequently inherited a cautious fear of being in that position again.
Bring on Barcelona
Vinícius Júnior has yet to experience such situations, and how he adapts to the difficult times will ultimately shape his career at the Santiago Bernabéu. It is an unforgiving environment, and even the very best have found themselves at the mercy of those that idolize and despise them in equal measure. They are emotions dictated by nothing but fine footballing margins.
With three El Clasicos over the course of the next month, Vinícius Júnior may soon experience a different side of the Madridistas than the praise that has already been lavished upon him. However, if he can shine against their biggest rivals, he will take another significant step forward in establishing himself as a defining figure in Madrid’s short and long-term future.