What's eating Vinicius Junior? Inside the Real Madrid star's struggle for form

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Vinicius Junior Real Madrid 2022-23
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The Brazil winger has suffered a dip in form, and with just one goal in his last eight games, and hasn't been the same player since the World Cup.

Late in the second half of Real Madrid's win over Athletic Club, Vinicius Junior suddenly began doing keepy-uppies. Defenders had left the Brazilian alone momentarily, so he flicked the ball up, shuffled it up and down on his right foot, before running at an approaching full-back - much to the anger of the San Mames crowd.

And therein lies the appeal of Vinicius. He is an entertainer, an immensely talented footballer with the samba gene engrained into how he plays the game.

And it's enthralling. Regardless of whether the he is enjoying one of his best showings of the year or toiling through a tough 90 minutes, there will always be a little speckle of joy and entertainment in Vinicius' play.

The issue is, those joyous moments haven't been as consistent of late. The winger has scored once in his last eight appearances, and his performances have noticeably dropped a level or two.

Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti claimed that his player wasn't being respected enough amid fan criticism, racist abuse and relentless fouls from opponents. And he has a point. Vinicius is the most fouled player in La Liga this season. He's also been abused by rival supporters, and been subject to immense amounts of off-field scrutiny. It is, then, not always easy being Vinicius.

All of this amounts to a player who is out of sorts and struggling for form. But how can this all be explained? Why has the player dropped off so badly following the World Cup? GOAL takes a look...

  1. World Cup hangover
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    World Cup hangover

    Brazil are always expected to win the World Cup, but this one felt special. Talisman Neymar had hinted that 2022 would be his last global tournament, manager Tite had led the Selecao to their best run in years, and the squad seemed far more balanced than in World Cups of the past, with a top-level defence matching a potentially devastating attack.

    For his part, Vinicius was coming off the best 12 months of his career and seemed primed to become a key piece as Brazil pushed for their sixth title.

    It didn't quite work out that way, though, as an abject Brazil side lost to Croatia in the quarter-finals. Vinicius started four of Brazil's five World Cup contests but was left to watch on from the bench as they crashed out on penalties.

    He isn't the only player to have returned to Santiago Bernabeu after exiting the World Cup, but unlike some of Madrid's other returnees, Vinicius hasn't taken any time off. The mental impact of Brazil's failure could, then, still very much be there.

  2. Defensive adjustments

    Defensive adjustments

    Last year, in the Champions League semi-final, Fernandinho inadvertently put on a clinic on how to not defend Vinicius. The ageing Manchester City midfielder, having been thrust into a right-back role, got too close to his compatriot, allowing the Madrid man to humiliate him for a now-famous goal, letting the ball roll through his legs before running the length of the pitch to finish.

    Fernandinho's technique was all over the place on that sequence. He was caught too square, flat-footed, and basically asking to be embarrassed. Since then, though, defenders have steadily learned how to contain Vinicius.

    Now, they stand off him. They don't dive in. They double up, even bring in three defenders to stop him. And it's been catching up to Vinicius.

    He's also not been as effective of a dribbler in recent weeks; he hasn't completed more than two dribbles in a match since the World Cup, per FBref. And although the stats can't account for the faints, fakes and stepovers, the winger isn't jetting off on those mazy runs like he was previously.

  3. Benzema link-up fading
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    Benzema link-up fading

    Part of the key to Madrid's success last year was the connection between Karim Benzema and Vinicius. The duo floated around the final third, piecing together moments of brilliance to unlock opponents.

    But that connection has waned in recent weeks. Although Benzema is averaging a goal per game, Vinicius hasn't assisted the reigning Ballon D'Or winner once since the World Cup, and the two haven't put together many signature sequences, either.

    It's a problem that arguably hurts Vinicius more than Benzema. The Frenchman was a top-level striker before Vinicius arrived, a guaranteed 20-goals-per-season forward. Vinicius, meanwhile, struggled for his first couple of seasons at Madrid, and even fell out with his now-prolific forward partner.

    But once the two started to work together, Vinicius came to life. Indeed, it has been Benzema's contribution, as much as Vinicius' talent, that has made the Brazilian one of the best in the world. Without Benzema at his best, then, Vini suffers.

  4. Fouls, fouls and more fouls
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    Fouls, fouls and more fouls

    Flashy players get kicked. It's become a weird sort of footballing tradition. The most skillful, most exciting, even most effective players can guarantee that a set of studs is destined for their ankle pretty much every game.

    Vinicius, though, is particularly susceptible to the lunged boot of an opponent. The winger has been fouled more than any player in Europe this season, seeing opponents whistled on 81 separate occasions so far. But something strange is happening; those who defend Vinicius aren't getting booked.

    It was particularly flagrant on Sunday, when Vinicius was fouled six times without any yellow cards handed out to the perpetrators. And it's not like he is a notorious diver, either. When he gets kicked, it's with force, gusto, and quite a malicious intent. Referees just aren't punishing it.

    It's something that Vinicius has often pointed out to referees, but his complaints have fallen on deaf ears...

  5. Passion
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    There is a misconception about the way Vinicius acts on the pitch. His detractors have dubbed him a moaner, a complainer. And there's an element of truth to that. The winger often takes issue with refereeing decisions and is unafraid to start a quarrel with an opponent.

    But that's part of his character, it's what makes him so good. Vinicius' personality is about expression and footballing passion. There's an emotion to how he plays and how he acts.

    The problem is, opponents have figured out how to manipulate that. It was clear in Madrid's Copa Del Rey last-16 match with Villarreal, for example. Pepe Reina heckled the Brazilian from the bench and seemed to momentarily get in his head as the pair argued near the home side's dugout.

    It also happened against Athletic, when Vinicius picked up a yellow card for clattering into a defender in retaliation after a series of trips and kicks.

    The Brazilian has also been booked five times this season, and twice since the World Cup, a testament to perhaps to the way he's treated by others, more than it is to any natural nastiness in his game.

  6. Abuse from the stands
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    Abuse from the stands

    Vinicius has been the subject of immense amounts of racist abuse, both online and in stadiums since he made his move to Europe from Flamengo. 

    It has intensified of late, however, and he was jeered by Real Valladolid fans in late December, which in turn led to a public row with La Liga president Javier Tebas over the league's handling of racism.

    Vinicius' dancing celebrations after scoring have also come under fire. Atletico Madrid captain Koke, whom Vinicius will face on Thursday in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals, suggested back in September that Vinicius shouldn’t dance if he scored in the Madrid derby. 

    Vinicius hit out in return, asserting correctly that Koke’s comments were racist, and that his celebration is a means of samba expression.

    The whole affair, among other incidents, has kicked off a social media frenzy. And despite support from his Brazilian team-mates, the impact of abuse on Vinicius' performances cannot be understated.