After a delicate reverse pass from Luka Modric, Vinícius Júnior found himself on the left-hand side of the penalty area with the ball at his feet.
This was a very familiar position for the 19-year-old and before he had time to mentally replay the myriad of squandered chances this territory usually beckons, he delicately dinked the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper.
Admittedly, five minutes later he was through on goal again and, from a less acute angle, conspired to scoop his effort onto the crossbar. Yet, while those moments of indecision may not have completely been expelled from his repertoire, crucially, they have been reduced with every performance.
Vinícius’ subtle finish against Mallorca was the latest in what has developed into something of a hot streak for the young winger. In his last seven starts, across all competitions, Vinícius has been involved in five goals for Real Madrid.
A few days prior to Mallorca’s visit, his rapid dart into the box led to a penalty for Karim Benzema to open the scoring in Madrid’s 2-1 win over Real Sociedad. This performance prompted his manager Zinedine Zidane to tellingly describe Vinícius as ‘both the present and future of Real Madrid’.
Although, the legendary Frenchman was quick to concede that his teenager starlet is far from the finish product: “He is just 19 years of age and he must learn many things, and he knows it,” Zidane warned, as quoted by Marca. “But he is a boy who wants to learn, and he did a great job the other day, not just offensively.”
As evidenced by the calmness of his most recent conversion, one of the things Vinícius has been learning is the elusive art of maintaining a cool head in front of goal. This has not always been prevalent during his time at Madrid as the winger seemed always to be in a rush to finish his chances.
La Liga defenders, barely match fit as it is after a three-month break, will be the first to attest that Vinícius, and his electric bursts of speed, plays the game at a hurtling pace, much like the trajectory of his career.
Vinícius had been splashed across the front cover of the Spanish sports daily Marca – before he’d even trained with Flamengo’s first team- as he became the second most expensive export from the Brazilian league when Madrid bought him as a 16-year-old. But the ascent was put momentarily on hold as he was only allowed to join after turning 18.
When he did arrive in Europe, Vinícius wasted no time in proving himself worthy of first team duties after lashing in four goals in five games for the club’s B side. Although his debut campaign only brought a handful of starts for seniors and was punctuated by injury, the development of his game has continued, be it at a less rapid rate.
Vinícius’ fitness has been clear to see since the restart. Having hired a personal trainer at the turn of the year, the winger is still able to hare after opponents dawdling on the ball with 90 minutes in his legs. Real’s number 25 has also improved with the ball at his feet.
Compared to his debut term in the Spanish capital, Vinícius may be shooting less but he is putting a larger proportion of those shots on target. And, based on the average expected goal value of his efforts, he is choosing to pull the trigger from positions which offer a greater chance of scoring.
Earlier in the year, when asked about his performance in front of goal, Vinícius explained his use of Raheem Sterling’s career as a template for his own: “I’m very calm and I know at some point the goals will come. I’m only 19 years old. Sterling, at my age, did the same thing. He didn’t score so many goals, but this year I think he already has 15 or 16. He improves with every season.”
The pair actually crossed paths shortly after Vinícius had drawn the comparison when Manchester City travelled to the Bernabéu for the Champions League round of 16. Sterling was watching on from the sidelines as Vinícius calmly squared to the ball across the box for Isco to tap Real Madrid into the lead.
Real ended up conceding twice after Vinícius was subbed off but the following weekend he again delivered on the big occasion. If Barcelona and Real finish level on points at the top of La Liga, it will be Vinícius’ goal in the clásico that hands Los Blancos the title by virtue of a superior head-to-head record.
Madrid have looked like the best team in Spain since football’s Iberian return and Vinícius has seamlessly carried on the form which was abruptly brought to a halt. At 19, his best years are surely still to come but given the heights he has already reached, Zidane’s assessment of the winger is perfect: as ‘both the present and future of Real Madrid’.