Vinicius Junior is still at the stage of his career when he could be anything at all. Nobody could really argue that he was the star turn of Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Alaves on Sunday evening, when he made the first goal for Karim Benzema and scored the second himself, but it was the tone of his performance which was most thrilling.
And it was a tone which the Bernabeu needs to hear. Even on television, the local disaffection with post-Cristiano Ronaldo life is made plain by those empty seats and, in these hungover days when LaLiga already seems well out of reach, Vinicius is a tonic to soothe those aching heads.
Not that he comes without frustration, though. While his driving runs and trickery were often at the root of Real’s attacking momentum on Sunday, there were occasions when good options were ignored for the sake of taking on one more defender. But then, even that can be spun into a positive. Over on the other side of the pitch, mainly working from the right-hand side, Gareth Bale spent his night as a prisoner of inhibition. He may have just returned recently from injury, but Bale is clearly suffering under the weight of his relationship with the Bernabeu. It may have originally been assumed that he would grow into the void left by Ronaldo, but that has never looked less likely; fitness is an issue and he is clearly in no sort of match ryhthm, but he doesn’t seem to crave any sort of involvement either, looking very much a man out of touch with the youth movement around him.
Conversely, Vinicius’ appetite for the ball was insatiable. This was just his sixth LaLiga start of the season, yet he already plays with the determination to be a difference-maker. That’s very interesting. Because of his age, because of his transfer-fee, and because of the situation his club find themselves in. If he was a token teenage part of a dominant side, one which was crushing opponents week-to-week, then his performances might not be so relevant As it is, though, he’s adopted this talisman persona at a time when Real are obviously vulnerable and when, although still blessed with an enviable cast, they don’t offer many shadows to hide within. So Vinicius is exposed under the lights. Since his move from Flamengo was completed, the world has been waiting to greet him with cynicism; he’s been the boy who can’t possibly live up to the hype and who, by virtue of the club he plays for, is really there to be shot down.
So Vinicius’ exuberance is thrilling in that context. On an individual level, the dots are easy enough to join. When a player performs with such expression at a young age, it’s just too tempting to imagine how experience might multiply that effect over time and what the end product will look like. But that the player is also willing to show so much of himself now – to take risks, to back himself to charm a moody crowd – is perhaps even more descriptive.