The Brazilian is not responsible for the Merengue’s crisis, but the failure of the ex-coach to handle the wonderkid contributed to his dismissal
He was supposed to be Real Madrid’s next great striker and, just possibly, the successor to Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu.
Instead Vinicius Junior ended up being a millstone around Julen Lopetegui’s neck throughout the former Spain coach’s short tenure at the club. Indeed, the Brazilian and the failure to get the best out of him indirectly contributed to the decision to remove Lopetegui from his post after less than three months of his debut season.
“Vinicius is one more member of this squad, he is very young and very talented.” Lopetegui’s interim replacement Santiago Solari said after being grilled on the teenager in his very first press conference after taking over.
Solari knows Vinicius better than anyone at Madrid thanks to his time with Castilla, and believes he has the ability to go far. “He has a lot to learn, but also a lot to give,” the Argentine added.
“If he is here, it is because he is good enough.”
It is those two sides of this unpolished gem, who has a lot to learn and a lot to give, that gave Lopetegui such a headache. And it is an open secret around Madrid that the coach’s handling of the former Flamengo star, who landed on his lap following a £40.5 million (€45m/$54m) summer move from Brazil, caused great concern to those in charge.
In completing the transfer Madrid received a teenage prospect who had already impressed at the top level in South America and in mythical stadiums like the Maracana. It is clear that he is no Neymar, much less an instant replacement for Cristiano, but his potential and performances with Castilla suggested he should have received far more than the 12 minutes of senior football Lopetegui afforded him.
Goal understands, however, that it was not just the lack of opportunities that caused consternation. Far more worrying was the absence of a clear plan to integrate and develop Vinicius in Madrid in the short, medium and long term.
The decision was taken to send him to Castilla when he was not needed in the first team, a resolution that seemed reasonable as a starting point. But there was no progression from that initial plan, no meetings to evaluate his evolution as a player or his needs with those who knew him best.
Lopetegui took it upon himself to chart the course of the Brazilian’s Madrid career, and spoke of it solely on the days prior to matches. That only heightened doubts over how a player singled out as crucial for the future of the club was being managed.
The week of that catastrophic 5-1 Clasico defeat marked a breaking point. Madrid made an official appeal against the double booking Vinicius picked up at Castilla in order to free him up for a do-or-die clash against Barcelona, or perhaps for Saturday’s Castilla match with Fuenlabrada. Lopetegui called him up to his first-team squad, only to leave him clicking his heels in the Camp Nou stands.
Vinicius did not feature against Barca and was also unable to turn out for Solari’s feeder team as they tasted defeat for the first time in the season. That call summed up what was already considered a deeply flawed treatment of the Brazilian. It also gave Florentino Perez and his acolytes one more weapon to use against Lopetegui as they prepared to set him loose from the Bernabeu.
The youngster himself is not to blame for Madrid’s malaise. He is not one of the eight Ballon d’Or candidates singled out in Madrid’s statement sacking Lopetegui, and has had minimal participation in their worst results.
But indirectly at least, he had a part to play in Lopetegui’s dismissal. Now it is up to Solari, who has taken Vinicius under his wing, to calm the player’s doubts and get the best out of him as he simultaneously seeks to steady the sinking Madrid ship. And with perfect timing: Wednesday’s Copa del Rey match presents an ideal opportunity for Madrid’s most valuable youngster to finally show what he can do with the first team after more than two months of frustration under Lopetegui.
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