Matheus Nunes: The Next Step

When Sporting took the unprecedented gamble of prizing youthful head coach Rúben Amorim away from Sporting de Braga, costing the club’s coffers a record-breaking €10 million to take the reins at the Alvalade, the under-fire club president Frederico Varandas had just one name on the tip of his tongue when batting away the criticism - that of an upcoming, yet relatively unknown Matheus Nunes.

In Varandas’ words, “Matheus Nunes alone will cover the Amorim cost,” as they eyed the Brazilian-born star’s ascension, among others, under their latest appointment. 

Heavy praise for a lad who, just four years ago, was playing non-league football for Ericeirense and working at his uncle’s local café, as his footballing aspirations dwindled.

Now a one-time Primeira Liga champion, revered by illustrious figures such as Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and set to tackle the cash-laden Premier League for his new club Wolverhampton Wanderers, life for the football-hungry Matheus wasn’t always a sea of roses.

After moving to Portugal from Brazil, aged 13, the dreams of becoming a professional came close to dissipating after failures to leave an impression on clubs such as Leicester City, Lille and Primeira Liga duo Benfica and Braga.

Matheus, already released once by third-tier Oriental de Lisboa, edged himself closer and closer to giving up his lifelong ambitions until the insistence from his own mother kept the rangey midfielder on track.

The 23-year-old’s fortunes changed when Luis Freire, currently in charge of newly-promoted Rio Ave, made the jump from Ericeirense to Estoril Praia and asked his new employees if the young Matheus, aged 18, could join him.

Upon inspection, Estoril accepted the suggestion and had the then attacking midfielder featuring for their promising Under-23s squad, managed by Alexandre Santos.

Just as Santos made the switch over to Sporting some months later, however, completely besotted by Matheus’ game, the coach fought the midfielder’s corner in a bid to bring the young talent to Alcochete.

Estoril were clear on the player’s worth and demanded a base of €500,000, plus 50% of any future sale (which could be bought out by the Lions), and immediately the ghosts of Matheus’ past came back to haunt him ahead of a potentially life-changing switch.

Doubts were cast over his footballing background, supposedly lacking the nous that comes with academy football and the professional assistance throughout his formative years as a youth player - the very same reasons that had a stream of clubs turn a blind eye to his talents before.

A starting offer of €500,000 may seem like pennies today, but it represented a sizeable outlay to dedicate to a player whose CV was as brief as Matheus’. Nevertheless, Sporting took a punt on the budding youngster in much the same way that they did with current boss Amorim.

The parallels between the two were evident as the player stuck out like a sore thumb with the Sporting Under-23s for his talent and backstory alike. It’s no coincidence that, with Amorim’s appointment, Matheus was the player picked out by Varandas as the up-and-coming coach fast-tracked the Brazilian-born star-to-be into the first-team.

Matheus Nunes in pre-season action for Sporting

Surrounded by young, hungry and like-minded players, the prospect formed part of a hub that was integral to receiving the enthusiasm transmitted by the Sporting boss en route to the shock Primeira Liga title conquest of 2020/21.

That very season, Matheus vindicated himself with huge goals against rivals Benfica and Braga, clubs who could’ve been reaping the rewards of trust had they not overlooked him all those years back. 

Much-loved by the fanbase, it wasn’t, however, until the following campaign, in the wake of João Mário’s infamous switch to cross-city rivals Benfica, that Matheus’ stock grew exponentially in green and white.

The doubts at the start of the 2021/22 season centred themselves around how much of a miss João Mário may be and whether his successor, the ever-determined Matheus, could provide the same kind of guile offered by the ex-Inter man the year before.

By the end of the campaign, the focus in Sporting’s midfield shifted completely, with the topic of conversation being centred around the once indispensable João Palhinha versus new boy Manuel Ugarte. Matheus had outdone the mainstay and his qualities were deemed beyond undeniable.

On show, as he featured in all but one of the Lions’ league games last season, was the midfielder’s unrivalled blend of both physical and technical capabilities - a devastating recipe that caught the eye of Guardiola, quick to earmark Matheus as one of the finest midfielders of his category.

Proficient in transition, the pace and ease in which the Wolves-bound midfielder is able to turn defence into attack is, quite frankly, frightening.

Press him and he’s finding a way to shrug you off and swivel, leaving you with nothing more but the breeze left from his lung-bursting runs and a view of the devastation his actions are promising to create.

Stand off the phenom and he’s utilising the time and space afforded to him to progress possession another way, breaking the lines with passes - both long and short. The midfielder was, on his day, simply unplayable in his division as he left his opponents in a state of catch 22.

Regarded as somewhat of a super-athlete, there are naturally elements to Matheus’ game that are still very human as he battles with the age-old adversary of elite performers - consistency.

Showcasing a high ceiling has been the ‘easy’ part. Doing so on a regular basis is what will propel him to where his talents deserve to be, which may be the only ingredient currently missing from behind that café counter of his.

Matheus is a hard-worker, good listener and exceptional team-player, but if there’s a weakness that can be levelled at the Ericeira man, it’d be how to digest his own capabilities.

Such is the player’s ease to turn and make in-roads in the final third, or to pluck a dangerous opening out of thin air, Matheus can sometimes be guilty of wanting to do too much.

The end result - turnovers, which only serves to frustrate a player who plays on the edge of emotion.

Refining his craft and varying his play comes with greater experience and further maturity, with hopes of his stay being echoed loudly and proudly from his manager, Amorim, right through to the overwhelming majority of fans that see him play every week.

Coming from a position of utmost appreciation and care, an additional year at the Alvalade was perhaps the right avenue to go down, enabling the player to iron out some of his deficiencies before making the jump as a more complete player.

Matheus Nunes in his new colours after completing his €45 million switch to Wolves

Matheus would earn his dream move and the club, well paid for his services, would be reaping the financial rewards of the time and effort put into their man. 

For a good moment, the player seemed very keen on the concept as he pushed back advances from the likes of West Ham United, but the magnitude of the decision has eclipsed the player’s initial desires.

Sporting, like any other Primeira Liga club, need to make money and after Amorim’s recent quotes that the club can’t even conjure up an additional euro to spend on transfers, the sale of Matheus alleviates the Lisbon outfit’s positioning late in the market.

According to reports, words of wisdom from super-agent Jorge Mendes have been pivotal in convincing the 23-year-old of playing his football at the Molineux with Wolves, costing Bruno Lage’s team a club-record €45 million.

It’s not the Man City, or Liverpool that Matheus probably would’ve hoped for, but it’s a handy launch pad - one that enables him to continue growing as a player in relative peace before the next step comes calling.

Everything he hoped to do this season at Alvalade, he can do in the Premier League, in good, Portuguese-speaking company and with the exposure to unlock any kind of door in the future.

He’s a player that’s tailor-made for the fast-paced nature of English football, ties in brilliantly with the project at hand at Wolves and gives them a spark they don’t currently have within an already talented midfield.

All signs point towards a success story back on the Queen's shores, but the jury is still out for a Sporting side who would have fancied their chances of clawing back the league title, last won over a year ago.

Matheus would’ve been a tricky player for the Lions to replace on a good day. With less than a couple of weeks of the summer transfer window to go, relying on just two match-fit midfielders and with a high-stake clash away to Porto just around the corner, the Lisbon outfit may have just landed themselves in a real spot of bother.

In an ideal world, in the knowledge that Matheus could leave, the moment Daniel Bragança’s serious injury came about in pre-season should’ve been the moment Sporting accelerated the sale of the new Wolves star.

Instead, they’ve given themselves a wobbly platform from which to react in the lead-up to the Porto ‘Clássico’, on top of opening themselves up to a weak standpoint in the market.

Teams, particularly those in the domestic market, of which Sporting tend to favour, are likely to drive their asking prices up to a premium in the knowledge of the Lions’ new-found fortune.

The Lions must learn to live with that, but it won’t be the first time their risk-taking approach has been questioned.

One of the ripostes can be found in the club’s museum, beaming from the highs produced by Amorim’s men in 2021. The other promises to have a glittering career en route to the Premier League.

By Patrick Ribeiro