The Remarkable Rise of Vinicius Jr.

Vinicius Jr. celebrates after scoring against Granada in La Liga Santander.
Vinicius Jr. celebrates after scoring against Granada in La Liga Santander.

A stunning winner in the closing stages against Sevilla on Sunday has reaffirmed what many have started to believe this season - maybe Vinicius is the "Real" deal after all.

Vinicius Jr. is being hailed as one of the most exciting and impactful players in La Liga this season. But this hasn't always been the case for the young Brazilian winger.

The end of the 2020-21 season left a sense of "what if" amongst Real Madrid supporters. Real were beaten in the semi-finals of the Champions League by eventual winners Chelsea.They finished second in the league, two points behind cross-town rivals Atletico.

For large parts of last season and especially in the final stretch of games, Zinedine Zidane somehow managed to shore up Real's defense. Regular starters Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane were out of action with long-term injuries. But the unlikely centre-back partnership of Eder Militao and Nacho Fernandes was surprisingly resilient in crucial games. They put up valient displays against the likes of Liverpool in the Champions League and Barcelona in the league.

It was at the other end of the pitch, though, where the bulk of Real's problems lay. They relied heavily on Karim Benzema for most of their attacking output. He finished as their top-scorer in the league with 23 goals to his name. But the shocking statistic is that their second highest goalscorer in the league was defensive midfielder Casemiro, with a measly six goals.

Real's most recent Galactico, Eden Hazard, has struggled to even string two games together due to recurring injury concerns. The young Brazilian duo of Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo managed to impress only in spurts. Meanwhile, an unsettled Gareth Bale spent the season on loan at Tottenham.

Story so far this season

Real failed to add any attacking assets to their squad before the August transfer window slammed shut this season. There were worries that Benzema would have to carry this Real attack on his back for another season.

But to the surprise of the footballing world, and to that of the Real supporters, Benzema suddenly had a partner whom he could rely on. It turned out to be none other than the previously maligned Vinicius Jr.

Carlo Ancelotti started the season with a preferred trio of Benzema, Bale and Hazard up front. Vinicius came on in the second half in the first game of the season against Alaves. He scored a late goal in a 4-1 win to add some gloss to the scoreline.

But it was in the next game, away at Levante, where Vinicius really kickstarted his campaign. Coming on at the hour mark with Real trailing 2-1, Vinicius scored twice to rescue a point for Real in a 3-3 draw. Injury concerns for both Bale and Hazard, coupled with Vinicius' scorching hot form, led to Vinicius becoming a regular in Carlo Ancelotti's starting XI. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

The month of September brought more goals for Vinicius, scoring against Celta Vigo in a dominant 5-2 victory. Against Valencia, Vinicius once again proved to be decisive as he scored late to level the scores. He then went on to provide the assist for Benzema's winner, securing a crucial three points for Real. In the game against Elche, Ancelotti decided to rest Benzema. Vinicius rose to the occasion and scored a match-winning double in a 2-1 victory for Los Blancos.

Sunday night's long-range winner against Sevilla was Vinicus' 9th goal of the league campaign so far. The only player who has scored more is talisman Karim Benzema with 11 goals.

Vinicius' scorching hot form hasn't been limited to just the league. He has carried the same into the Champions League with a notable brace against Shakhtar Donetsk. The second of those goals showed shades of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo against Galatasaray in 2013-14. In the return fixture, he assisted both of Benzema's goals in a 2-1 victory at the Bernabeu. When he's not scoring, he's assisting.

The stats speak for themselves - Vinicius has scored more league goals this season(9) than he did in the previous 3 seasons combined(8).

How did Vinicius manage this turnaround?

The general consensus around Vinicius since his first season in Madrid was that he had plenty of talent, scorching pace and lightning quick feet. But what he lacked was the all-important final product, be it a cool and composed finish or a decisive pass to set up a teammate. Zinedine Zidane showed plenty of patience with the young winger though. He reiterated multiple times that these qualities would eventually come with experience and maturity.

But after two full seasons with the first team, Vinicius' lack of composure in the final third was becoming increasingly frustrating. Critics and supporters were starting to lose patience. Some were even suggesting that maybe he just wasn't the player that Madrid hoped he would turn out to be. But credit to Vinicius, he kept his head down and kept putting the work in.

Reports suggested that Vinicius had been putting in extra hours at the training ground to work specifically on his finishing since 2019.

And slowly but surely, the results started showing on the field. Last year he came in clutch against Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, scoring twice in a 3-1 win at home. Vinicius has built on that this season, adding the end product to his game that everyone desired.

At the beginning of this season, there were reports that Vinicius had been consulting a sports psychologist. This just goes to show the amount of work and dedication he is ready to put in to achieve his goals.

Budding partnership with Karim Benzema

Ever since Vinicius arrived in the Spanish capital, it was evident that Benzema had taken him under his wing. He was playing the role of a mentor for the young Brazilian. The journey wasn't always smooth though. Their relationship was thrust into the spotlight when, in a Champions League group game against Borussia Monchengladbach last season, cameras caught Benzema complaining about Vinicius to left-back Ferland Mendy. In the viral clip, he was seen suggesting not to pass the ball to Vinicius.

But Vinicius has shown immense character and determination. Taking the criticism in his stride, he has gone on to change people's opinions about him and earn the plaudits of all his Madrid teammates.

Vinicius and Benzema have been among the first two names on the team sheet for Carlo Ancelotti this season. Vinicius has formed a lethal partnership with the Frenchman. This has led to Benzema getting the best start he has had to a league campaign in terms of goals and assists in his career. The youthful pace and exuberance of Vinicius, combined with the decision making and silkiness of Benzema, is a combination that any team on the planet would be envious of.

Brilliant on the pitch, Humble off it

What makes Vinicius a special player, apart from his electric style of play, is his personality. He has shown time and again, through his words and actions, that he has the mentality required to succeed at the very top. Add to that the humility he has shown ever since joining Madrid, and you have a player that is very hard not to like and get behind.

Money is not his main motivating factor either, Vinicius is currently among the five lowest earners in the Madrid squad. He currently earns €3.2m per season, which rises to €4m when bonuses are taken into account. That places him alongside the likes of Dani Ceballos, Jesus Vallejo and Andriy Lunin on the Real wage charts.

Vinicius remains unfazed by talk of a new bumper contract after his stellar campaign so far. Choosing to focus instead on letting his footballing ability do the talking.

The rise of Vinicius has been as unpredictable as it has been brilliant to watch. As a football fan it is hard not to root for a character like him. With players of Vinicius' mold performing at their best, this game is just that little bit more beautiful.

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Edited by Shardul Sant
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