Wolves’ Matheus Nunes – from bakery to Premier League, the incredible rise
The day started at 5am. Matheus Nunes turned off his alarm clock, wolfed down some breakfast, and got on his bike. A few minutes later, the hard graft was about to begin. No rest for talented villains.
Nunes used to play for Sporting Lisbon U23 side, dreaming of breaking into the first team. But it wasn’t a dawn fitness regimen designed to boost his odds. It was a bit more mundane than that – less rocky road, more rocky. Every morning, while his teammates slept, Nunes would clock in for a shift at his local bakery.
There, among the pasteis de nata, he had time to reflect on his journey so far – on his early childhood in Brazil, on the hardships that led nowhere, on his years playing in the leagues of district of Lisbon, a world away from Portuguese football. traditional talent factories.
He was 20 when Sporting tried their luck with him. he felt like he had won the lottery. But he didn’t give up his other job until he was sure he didn’t need it anymore.
“The bakery showed that he was different from most players who don’t know anything but football,” says Alexandre Santos, one of Nunes’ early mentors. “He was really mature and he enjoyed what he had. He was in no rush to reach the top level.
The highest level, however, seems determined to reach it. Over the past two seasons, Nunes has established himself as one of Europe’s most promising young midfielders, winning over fans at Sporting and beyond with his talent and drive.
Pep Guardiola may have overdone it a bit when calling him ‘one of the best players in the world’, but giddy excitement has followed Nunes’ every step in recent months. There have been comparisons to Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, and starry-eyed headlines (“Saint Matheus”) in the Lisbon sports pages. Brazil and Portugal engaged in a public showdown for his services.
Now, after a club-record £38m ($46m) contract, Nunes is a Wolves player. Those who know him best believe he is perfectly suited for Premier League football. They also expect the baker to make further progress.
Nunes could have moved to England in 2016. Leicester invited him for a week-long trial after being impressed by a video of him playing for their home side Ericeirense.
Ruben Franco, his coach at the time, accompanied him and thought he had done well enough to be offered an academy spot. But Nunes never heard back. “It was the year Leicester won the title and everything was crazy,” Franco told Portuguese website MaisFutebol. “Maybe they didn’t give him the attention he deserved for that reason.”
It wasn’t the only false dawn. Nunes also trained with Lille, Braga and Benfica; none of them liked him. A pass to the third level Oriental failed. So he stayed with Ericeirense, playing in front of a few hundred fans every week, until shortly before his 20th birthday.
In the end, it was Estoril – based just down the coast, near the tourist beaches of Cascais – who tried their luck. There he bounced between the Under-23s, managed by Santos, and the first team. When Santos moved to Sporting, he recommended Nunes to the club’s scouting department.
“He had never played for a big club and didn’t have the football education that most top players have,” Santos said. Athleticism. “But he had a lot of natural abilities. What if he was this good without any sort of formal development…”
Santos thought Nunes could “explode” with the right coaching. Jose Chieira, Sporting’s head of scouting and recruitment at the time, agreed. “He was a pretty late developer compared to the other kids we had,” Chieira said. Athleticism. “At the same time, he had everything you look for in a box-to-box midfielder. He could break the lines, control the game. Physically, he was a colossus.
“There were also intangible factors — things you don’t always see at first glance. He liked to work hard and learn. He was a good listener. He wasn’t a typical leader, but he was hungry. We were optimistic that he would become a very good player.
He did. Nunes immediately became a key player for the reserves, and while he had to bide his time for his senior debut, things fell into place in March 2020. After a tumultuous period for the club, Ruben Amorim took over. as first-team manager and pivoted to youth; Nunes was one of the main beneficiaries, starting nine of the last 10 games of the season.
2020-21 was something of a mixed bag – Sporting won their first league title in 20 years but the arrival of Joao Mario dropped Nunes slightly down the pecking order – but last season fell apart. proved to be the real exit party: Nunes became a fixture in the and was one of the best players in the Primeira Liga.
That didn’t surprise Santos, who says Nunes brings rare clarity and grace to his stance.
“He always finds solutions,” explains Santos. “If he is under pressure, with opponents all around him, he will quickly escape with one or two touches and launch an attack. It comes naturally to him. He has good vision and reads the game very well; often he will knock three or four opponents out of the game with just a few touches.
“He directs the games. He’s not a classic designer, but he has real technical quality. It’s all about control: he plays two-touch football and makes everything easy. He doesn’t complicate things; it is tidy.
Santos characterizes Nunes as a ‘modern midfielder’ and believes his skills lend themselves well to English football. “The Premier League is about speed and intensity,” he said. “It’s very vertical, and Matheus too. He is pragmatic and keeps things simple. He moves the ball quickly, with one or two touches. He wants to put his team on the attack quickly.
The key to it all is his physique: Nunes is tall and lanky, but light on his feet, allowing him to outrun his opponents. Witness his superb assist for Paulinho in the Lisbon derby in December: Benfica’s defense seemed to have everything under control, but Nunes somehow… teleported past them.
“His other big strength is carrying the ball forward, moving the game forward that way,” Santos explains. “He recovers the ball in his own area, and a few seconds later he is on the edge of the opponent’s area. He has the kind of physique you don’t often find in a Portuguese midfielder. His athleticism is extraordinary. He has it all.
All of this begs the question instead: why doesn’t he join one of Europe’s top teams? “He deserves more than wolves,” said an experienced Portuguese journalist. Athleticism this week.
As always with Wolves, a lot can be explained by Jorge Mendes’ involvement. But there are reasons to believe that this decision will work in favor of Nunes. “Maybe he could have been targeted by one of the really big clubs,” says Chieira. “But I think this next step makes sense for everyone. I’d say Wolves got a good deal to get it at that price. For the player, it’s a new league, and much more difficult, but at Wolves he will have time to adapt. There is a little more leeway.
“The coach is also an important factor. Bruno Lage has shown in Portugal that he knows how to work with young people. For a player who wants to develop, it’s a rational move.
Santos agrees. “He could have gone to a team competing for titles, but the context is important,” he says. “In Liverpool or Manchester City, there may not be a place in the starting XI. Think of the example of Renato Sanches. He was a standout player at Benfica and moved to Bayern Munich for a huge fee, but he didn’t play. At Wolves, Matheus has the chance to prove he’s good enough for the Premier League.
“It also fits his profile. He’s not the kind of kid who would insist on going to the best team in the world. I think he will see this as an opportunity to grow. He will have a Portuguese coach and Portuguese teammates. It’s a good springboard. »
That conclusion might not immediately fill the hearts of Wolves fans with joy, but it’s also an indication of Nunes’ quality. For now, the best tactic is to sit back and watch the 23-year-old strut his stuff – to enjoy the beauty and the yeast.
(Top photo: Jack Thomas – WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)