In an alternative universe, one where Paris Saint-Germain weren’t blinded by their own stubbornness and accepted a €200m offer for Kylian Mbappe on transfer deadline day, Real Madrid would have unveiled their latest ‘Galactico,’ and their most significant signing since Cristiano Ronaldo, against Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Of course, the real world produced a very different scenario, with Eduardo Camavinga the only new signing to make his debut in the 5-2 home victory. Just because Real Madrid weren’t able to sign Mbappe for this season doesn’t mean they don’t have a player performing the same role, though.
Indeed, Vinicius Junior has looked every bit the ‘Galactico’ forward this season, scoring four goals in the four La Liga games he has played. Not even these impressive numbers quantify the improvement in the play of the Brazilian who was not so long ago seen as little more than a show pony.
Vinicius has added a genuine edge to his game. He is making quicker and better decisions. There are fewer moments of frustration. It’s almost as if Carlo Ancelotti has told the 21-year-old not to take more than two touches of the ball before playing a pass, making a cross or getting a shot away.
“This is the product of a lot of work, many hours training in Valdebebas and fighting to improve,” Vinicius replied when asked to explain his improvement. “Since I arrived at Madrid I always said that the time would come when I would score many goals in a row. Since the season started I feel very good. I have the confidence that the coach and all the technical staff give me.”
While Karim Benzema was caught criticising Vinicius at half time of a match last season, commenting that the Brazilian was “playing against” Real Madrid, there are now signs of a burgeoning relationship between the pair. With Eden Hazard fit again, there is real fluidity to Los Blancos in the attacking third.
On paper, Vincius has been deployed on the left side of a 4-4-2 by Ancelotti. However, this doesn’t quite illustrate the role he has performed for Real Madrid, with the 21-year-old offering verticality in much the same way Mbappe would have. With Vinicius in the side, Los Blancos can stretch the pitch in a matter of seconds, making their counter attack one of the most lethal around.
Real Madrid, and their club president Florentino Perez, might harbour a long-held obsession with Mbappe, but Vinicius’ development has only added to the sense that Ancelotti needs reinforcements in other areas of his squad before he needs another world class forward like the Frenchman.
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In defence, for instance, Real Madrid are exceptionally thin on the ground following the departure of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. The addition of David Alaba has supplemented the ranks, but the Austrian is already sidelined through injury leaving Nacho Fernandez and Eder Militao as Ancelotti’s only proven options at the back.
Even after the deadline day capture of Camavinga, who was possibly a revenge signing to get back at PSG for not allowing Mbappe to leave, Real Madrid must find a way to revitalise their ageing midfield unit. Martin Odegaard could have helped Ancelotti do this, but he was sold permanently to Arsenal this summer. Fede Valverde is still growing, but Toni Kroos (31) and Luka Modric (36) are as important as ever.
Real Madrid’s attack is where their squad is currently healthiest, which makes their pursuit of Mbappe all the more confusing. Until he arrives, though, Vinicius is charged with providing the pace and threat in behind to compliment Benzema as Real Madrid’s attacking hub and Hazard as their tricky creator. Ancelotti might already have a perfectly balanced frontline without Mbappe and Vinicius is a big part of that.