There was nothing especially surprising about Vinicius Junior’s performance against Borussia Monchengladbach in last season’s 2-2 Champions League draw in Germany.
The Brazilian played as he usually did, with wastefulness interspersed by occasional flashes of flair and trickery.
And there’s every reason to suggest that’s what you should expect from a teenager still finding his footing. Even the most talented superstars struggle with consistency during their formative years.
Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo. When he first joined Manchester United, he was even more of a showboater who frustrated and entertained in equal measure – a few years later, he was probably the best striker on the planet.
Development is a process, everyone knows that, but it doesn’t mean everyone is understanding or patient – even a player’s team-mates can get the hump.
Karim Benzema certainly appeared to fit that description at the halfway mark of the game at Gladbach last year.
In the tunnel, Benzema was caught on camera talking to some of his team-mates, allegedly criticising Vinicius in French. He was claimed to have told Ferland Mendy not to pass to the Brazilian, convinced he was “playing against us”, according to widely reported translations.
The clip was subsequently shared all over social media, causing a fair bit of embarrassment for Madrid and Benzema. It was pretty humiliating for Vinicius as well.
Vinicius downplayed the situation the following month but it was too late to eradicate the belief held by many, that Madrid’s changing room was increasingly divided.
Benzema’s half-time comments came after playing just three passes to Vinicius in the first 45 minutes, a period in which the Flamengo youth product could do little right.
There were misplaced short passes, an overhit cross, a ball played behind Luka Modric as the Croatian looked to burst into the box in threatening fashion.
Over the course of the full game (well, the 70 minutes Vinicius played), he failed to get any of his three shots on target, including one woeful slice from a cut-back to the middle of the area, and his 71.4 per cent pass success was the poorest of any Madrid starter.
Of course, players who operate in attacking areas of the pitch do tend to complete fewer passes in general, but Alassane Plea (85.2 per cent), Benzema (87.5) and Marcus Thuram (92.6) were all working in similar positions and were far less wasteful in possession.
In the second half, Benzema didn’t pass to him once.
0 – Karim Benzema didn’t pass a single ball to Vinicius Jr in the second half in the Champions League game vs Borussia Mönchengladbach (three in the first half). Distance. pic.twitter.com/OJ52Qh2Qym
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 28, 2020
Following that Champions League encounter, the on-pitch relationship between Benzema and Vinicius proved to be a regular source of debate – while the Frenchman enjoyed a fine individual campaign, his team-mate was still not at the same level of importance to Madrid, as highlighted by his modest 22 LaLiga starts.
But their apparent lack of cohesion on the pitch was by no means one-sided. In fact, during matches both started over the course of the 2020-21 LaLiga season, Benzema actually played slightly more passes to Vinicius (3.3 per match) than he received (3.25 per match).
Their combinations this season accentuate the previous disconnect even more. In the 13 league games both have started, Vinicius has averaged 5.9 passes to Benzema, while the latter has sought out the youngster 4.9 times each match.
They have already combined for 16 chances created in the league this term, just one shy of their total for 2020-21, and that’s translated to more goal combinations as well – in all competitions, Benzema and Vinicius have set each other up for seven goals.
Before that October night in Monchengladbach a little over 13 months ago, Benzema and Vinicius had only ever linked up for a goal three times (all competitions) and none of those had been since February 2019.
While it might be a bit of a stretch to suggest Benzema’s criticism spurred Vinicius on, they’ve undoubtedly moved past any lingering awkwardness to form a genuine understanding.
Ahead of Sunday’s derby with Atletico Madrid, no attacking duo in the top five leagues can better Benzema and Vinicius’ collective haul of 22 top-flight goals, while no other club has two players already on double figures.
Of course, there remains the possibility Benzema can’t play after sustaining a muscular injury against Real Sociedad last weekend. He had to sit out the 2-0 Champions League win over Inter and is reportedly set to undergo final tests on Friday.
Carlo Ancelotti had been optimistic after the defeat of Inter, so he’s certainly not a lost cause. But being without their talisman for such an occasion would really throw a gauntlet down to Vinicius to prove he can handle being the main man – after all, that’s presumably the status Madrid chiefs see him taking over the next 10 years or so.
Yet the very fact Vinicius is even being considered as a key player speaks volumes for his progression in a fairly short period of time.
If we go back to that aforementioned awkwardness in Monchengladbach, Vinicius’ effectiveness did appear to dip afterwards. Whether that’s down to his confidence being rocked by Benzema’s criticism is impossible to prove, but the numbers show there was a drop-off.
In his 76 Madrid games prior to that match, Vinicius averaged 3.4 shots, 0.27 goals, 2.0 chances created and 0.2 expected assists on a per-90-minute basis. Across the 42 matches that followed until the end of 2020-21, his productivity decreased significantly in all of those areas.
But Ancelotti’s arrival has seen him really kick on. For a while it looked as though Vinicius’ days at Madrid were numbered, now he could be a mainstay at the club for years.
Above all, Vinicius appears to have matured massively when it comes to his decision-making. His shooting frequency hasn’t recovered all the way (2.9 per 90 minutes), but he’s getting 1.5 of those on target, giving him a shooting accuracy of better than 50 per cent – he didn’t manage that before or after Benzema’s comments.
Similarly, his expected goals has increased slightly to 0.44 every 90 minutes and his average of 0.6 goals is more than double what it had been before Monchengladbach, highlighting not only better shot selection but also greater composure in more difficult situations.
He has enjoyed improvement in terms of chance creation (2.3 per 90 minutes) and xA (0.25) as well. Overall, it feels like Vinicius has finally arrived – but what’s changed?
Besides him just getting a bit older and more experienced, it would seem Ancelotti simply has greater trust in him than Zinedine Zidane did, hence why all of Vinicius’ 18 most recent appearances have been as a starter.
This time last year, the thought of Benzema missing the derby and having to rely on Vinicius to step up would’ve filled many Madrid fans with dread. How things change.