When Real Madrid announced in May 2017 that they’d secured the future services of Vinícius Júnior for $50million, the Brazilian wonderkid hadn’t even made his first-team debut for Flamengo.
The deal, however, was only effective from his 18th birthday. So after he made his senior bow for Fla as a 16-year-old, Vinícius was able to rack up 69 appearances for the club, scoring 14 goals in the process.
As far as ‘the new Neymar' goes, the winger was tipped to be heir apparent to the world’s most expensive player.
And after a year-long wait, the Série A’s most expensive export arrived in Spain and immediately dazzled – he became the first-ever player born in 2000 to turn out for the 13-time European champions when he made his first-team debut in September.
But his arrival coincided with a time of change in the Spanish capital. Cristiano Ronaldo had left for Juventus. Coach Zinedine Zidane had departed and his successor, Julen Lopetegui lasted just 14 games before being dismissed.
Santiago Solari’s appointment turned the tide in Vinícius’s favour and the Brazilian starlet began to impact proceedings for Los Blancos. A ruptured knee ligament sustained in March brought the 18-year-old’s debut season in Spain to a premature end.
During his absence, Real Madrid reappointed Zidane as manager. The summer transfer window then saw the Spanish juggernaut add a host of names to their attacking ranks: Eden Hazard became the latest member of the Galáctico gang.
Luka Jović arrived looking to claim Karim Benzema’s position as the man to lead the line while Rodrygo, another Brazilian starlet, pitched up having agreed to a similar deal to that of Vinícius’ the year prior.
James Rodríguez also returned from his loan spell with Bayern Munich and suddenly there were plenty of options for the attacking positions in Zidane’s side.
Hazard, however, picked up a hamstring injury in pre-season and that left the door ajar for Vinícius to make an impact on the left side of the attack. He’s had opportunities in Zidane’s starting XI but he hasn’t made the impression many had expected him to.
The sample size isn’t the largest, just 360 minutes in LaLiga, but there’s nothing about the numbers he’s posting that suggest he’s worthy of pushing Hazard for a place. His 0.25 assists per 90 is not bad, but his expected assists are down at 0.16, suggesting he’s not exactly a creative hub.
He’s also averaging 0.25 goals with an expected goals average of 0.31. Those at the Santiago Bernabéu are used to seeing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo hit 60 goals a season.
It’s clear Vinícius has the potential to be a threat – his seven attempted dribbles and nine touches in the area per 90 hint at that – but Real Madrid hasn't ever been a finishing school. They buy the best.
Unless players are ready to make an immediate impact, their shelf with Los Blancos is often limited. Yet Wonderkids need patience and game time.
It’s easy to forget Neymar had made over 200 appearances and scored more than 100 goals for Santos before his move to Barcelona. Kylian Mbappé appeared in over 60 matches for Monaco, and shone in the Champions League, before Paris Saint-Germain came calling. When people tipped them to be world-beaters, there was evidence to back up those claims.
Vinícius didn’t have that. He just had the hype.
In a New York Times feature, Frederico Pena, the agent who runs TFM and looks after the Real Madrid No.25, revealed what the LaLiga giants had said to them to speed up the process: “Real Madrid’s chief executive, José Ángel Sánchez, told us that the club would pull out of the race to sign Kylian Mbappé, the French teenage sensation then starring for Monaco, if Vinícius would commit.
“We realised they really wanted him because they’re comparing him, without playing a professional game, with a player killing it at a top European level.”
Bear in mind, this was before Vinícius had even made his Flamengo debut. He was built up to be the next Neymar and the man to rival Mbappé for the future Ballon d’Or awards before he’d even kicked a ball as a professional. When a player has that sort of build-up, can the reality ever live up to the hype?
Instead of following in the footsteps of the Paris Saint-Germain starlet, Vinícius may instead have to tread the same path as Gabriel Barbosa.
Gabigol was the next big thing to come out of the Santos academy. Tipped by some to be even more talented than Neymar, the man he replaced in the starting XI, the young forward did enough to convince Inter he was worth €30million.
Considered a coup for the Serie A side, it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t quite ready for a move to Europe. A loan move to Benfica did him no favours and he returned to Brazil on loan.
Originally with Santos, he’s now considered the best player in the league having stolen the show at Flamengo. His performances have resulted in some big European clubs showing an interest in him once again.
The talent was always there with Gabigol, he just needed to develop it. The same goes for Vinícius.
Loan moves may be his best bet because unless Real Madrid go all-in on him – and not just in a financial sense – he’s never going to fulfil his undoubted potential and he’ll be one of football’s greatest what-if stories.