It would be simplicity itself to be focus exclusively on the killer-clinical finishes, or to hail the theatrical drama of Vinicius having come to the aid of his rudderless, sinking team only to produce two career-best goals within 26 minutes of joining the fray to salvage a 3-3 draw (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.).
It would be natural, too, to point out that if any of the great, elegant, modern strikers — from Thierry Henry to Didier Drogba, via Ronaldinho and Ronaldo Nazario — had produced identical finishes, we’d have raved about their sang-froid, about what devastating footballers they were — no provisos, no “but …” hovering in the air. However, this is Vinicius.
You don’t have to live in Spain to be aware of the monotonous, dull-minded campaign waged against him by some parts of Spain’s football media. That he’s dopey; that he lacks a thought in his head when it comes to the “killer” moment. That he’s all piston-legs and no winning psychology. This kid from Brazil, who’s only just turned 21, has been consistently portrayed as a one-trick pony whose trick isn’t all that special anyway. He has been disparaged, undervalued and treated as if his feelings, his ambition, his work ethic and his Teflon-tough mentality were mere flotsam and jetsam.
All of his notable character traits were considered irrelevant compared to the fancy, snide adjectives that could be conjured up to damn with faint praise when he successfully contributed, or unleashed mercilessly when (or if) he over-ran a possible assist, or micro-missed the right decision about whether he was facing a shooting or a passing opportunity.
Well — and this is a drum I don’t regret having beaten for a couple of years now — don’t let your eye, critical or constructive, be distracted by the sublime quality of those goals at a hot, heated and hyped-up Levante on Sunday. What’s actually much more remarkable about this young Brazilian isn’t that he can draw a defender at high speed and nonchalantly cut the ball past an advancing goalkeeper without any favourable angle to speak of. Or that he can use the laces of his boots to loft a delicate dink into the far top corner to complete the point-saving brace of goals.
It’s truly remarkable that so many have stubbornly taken an eternity to realise that Vinicius isn’t just blessed with remarkable talent — he’s improving, he’s working really hard at the things he was lacking, and his statistics are startling.
For example, feast on this: aged 21, Vinicius has goal- and assist-per-minute ratios in senior club football that are either equal to or better than those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age. Just take a moment to think about that. By the time Messi was 21, he’d scored 42 goals and made 24 assists, and it had taken him 7,369 minutes in Barcelona colours to do so. At the same age, Ronaldo had scored 27 goals and produced 27 assists in 9,552 minutes for Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United.
Those two were, at that stage of their careers, being talked about in hushed terms — they were phenomena in the making. There was absolutely zero criticism or myopically ignorant reporting of Messi, while the worst that was said about Ronaldo was that he loved a step-over almost as much as a cross or a goal. Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at United, was already saying that he’d not seen anyone braver in drawing and taking tackles since George Best.
You can’t even sniff that type of reverence and patience when it comes to Vinicius. Given his own achievements at this age it startles me he hasn’t gone on an outright offensive against his knee-jerk critics. The much-criticised man who wears Madrid’s No. 20 shirt has scored 31 senior goals for Flamengo and Madrid (Messi 42, Cristiano 27) while he has assisted 28 more (Messi 24, Cristiano 27). It’s taken him 9,007 minutes in Brazil and Spain (Messi 7,369, Cristiano 9,552).
What’s more, and I’d argue this is important context, the Brazilian’s situation has been significantly more difficult. He has achieved that return across two continents (not something Messi or Ronaldo can boast); he’s had to prove himself to seven different managers, one of whom (Julen Lopetegui) didn’t trust him with a single match. Ronaldo worked under only two managers in his early senior career, Laszlo Boloni and Ferguson, while Frank Rijkaard was the only first-team coach Messi had played under at Barcelona.
Given the absolute truth that trust, continuity, development, advice, tactical and strategic equilibrium matter far more when you are young, creative and in the glare of media spotlight for the first time, Vinicius has had it far tougher than either Messi or Ronaldo in that he has had to put up with seven different coaches of six different nationalities (Colombian, Brazilian, Argentine, French, Italian and Spanish).
Some of his goals and assists, remember, have come in empty stadia during a pandemic — not something the two men regarded as all-time greats had to endure when they were fledglings playing in a foreign country like Vinicius is.
In March this year, Vinicius gave vent to some of the angst surrounding him and his club. He recalled that Pele often commented that victory was more of a relief than the outright “joy” that it should have felt like.
“That’s because of the pressure we’re under,” Vinicius told El Pais. “That’s worse than anywhere here, the greatest club in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Sergio Ramos after years here or myself, Rodrygo or Ferland Mendy who are more recent arrivals. If you’re playing for Madrid none of that counts — only winning.
“When I arrived they’d won four out of five Champions Leagues — just as Cristiano, the greatest legend in the club’s history, was leaving. All of that was complicated, but I carry the pressure on my shoulders pretty well.
“Scoring a goal is pure joy, more than a relief, because it’s the product of all the work we do as a squad. Goals give us confidence, to risk more, to play better, to play with vivacity. Dribbling one vs. one is easier for me than scoring — I know that a rival is always going to be thinking about what I’m going to do, where I’m going to take him.”
There is no need to draw any hasty conclusions from the statistical comparison between Messi, Ronaldo and Vinicius. The data will clearly shock many of his intemperate critics, but there’s no point in suggesting that the Brazilian might emulate his peers from Argentina and Portugal who have gone on to rip up the history books. Those two, beyond their quite remarkable skill sets, turned out to be beyond elite in their remorseless hunger to improve, to win and, in each case, there was a “Eureka” moment when seasonal goal tallies of 15-25 suddenly rocketed to new heights (peaking at 91 in a calendar year for Messi).
Frankly, it would be completely unfair to place that kind of expectation on Vinicius. Mostly because it’s statistically improbable that another true scoring phenomenon like those two just happens along while Messi and Ronaldo are still playing. (Memo to self: watch out for Erling Haaland.) Also, we have no real way of knowing yet what kind of man Vinicius is going to develop into. Injury free? Ruthlessly ambitious? Blessed with playing in a dominant team for nigh on a decade? We just don’t know.
But, in light of his three goals in 55 LaLiga minutes so far this season (a huge improvement in his rate of a goal every 290 minutes across his career), just let me remind you of something shocking. It is 10 months since Karim Benzema was caught on camera walking back onto the pitch at Borussia Monchengladbach with Madrid losing 2-0 at half-time and telling Mendy, in French: “Don’t pass to that guy [Vinicius]. It’s like he’s playing for the opposition!”
It was a stunning moment. Treacherous, dangerous, mean-spirited. Vinicius learned about it, as we all did, when the remarks went viral. He was only 20, struggling for confidence and still only a handful of months into his recovery from a brutal ankle injury. Unbelievably, in my view, he simply let it bounce off him. No complaints, no physical retribution (the old-school way of settling training ground grudges), no dip in form — no way he was letting it get under his skin.
Asked about it a few months after Benzema’s character assassination, Vinicius would retort in El Pais: “Karim is incredible. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid in Brazil watching him play. He’s the best striker in the world right now. Playing alongside Karim is easy, it’s like working with your idol. He’ll constantly be telling me what I should be doing and I’m certain he likes having me as a teammate. I listen, too, because I’m quite certain he’s doing it to improve me so that I give more assists to him and him to me.”
So the side note, which I’m sure you saw coming: after Casemiro‘s world-class assist for Vinicius’ first goal at Levante, who was it that set him up for his second with a neat, generous little flick? One which showed trust that Vinicius might produce something remarkable? Monsieur Karim Benzema, that’s who. He knows, I’ve known for a while and hopefully you now realise it, too: Vinicius might be a work in progress, but he’s a work of art. Make no mistake about it.