Growing up in the port city of João Pessoa, Brazil, it is unlikely that an adolescent Matheus Cunha had great familiarity with Wolverhampton Wanderers and their infamous rivalry against West Bromwich Albion. Fast forward to 2024, the Brazilian scored the dagger in a 2-0 victory in the derby, granting Wolves their first win away at West Brom for the first time since 1996. He then subsequently proclaimed himself in gladiator fashion not only as the owner of the Hawthorns but also inadvertently, the king of the Midlands. Something every Brazilian dreams of.
Since his 2021-2022 season with Hertha Berlin, Cunha has not truly looked like he belonged anywhere. His talent has never been in question, as shown by his Puskas-nominated goal for Leipzig against Leverkusen in 2019. The spirit of Zinedine Zidane possessed him when he pirouetted and chipped the Leverkusen keeper in one motion. The only thing which has been questioned is his output and where he fits in modern football.
He only has had one double-digit goal season in his career back in 2017-2018 with Sion in the Swiss Super League. He is not quick enough to be a touchline winger, nor has his finishing or physicality been good enough to be a sole number nine. So, where he fits best on the pitch in the Premier League has been a conundrum.
So, when Wolves spent £44 million to make his loan signing permanent this season a few eyebrows were raised. Especially after only scoring twice in the previous six months he spent at the Molineux. Yet, since Gary O’Neil has come in, he has solved the problematic equation of how to get the best out of the mercurial Brazilian in Albert Einstein fashion.
The ex-Hertha Berlin man has played off the left in a 3-4-3 formation. Playing in this position allows him to combine his excellent close control, dribbling ability and creativity in the final 1/3rd to full effect. In this system, the front three often interchange, so instead of being stuck up top or on the wing, he has the freedom to pick and choose his moments of when to occupy the correct spaces and make the correct decisions.
Cunha picks up the ball on the left wing and sees a marauding Pablo Sarabia making a run beyond the Tottenham defence.
The ball is delivered perfectly onto the Spaniard’s foot who then volleys in the equaliser against Tottenham, with Wolves going on to win the game just minutes later. The stats also show how well Cunha has been from a creative point. He has six assists in the Premier League and is averaging 0.29 assists per 90 and 0.29 expected assists per 90. These rank him in the upper 93rd and 84th percentile in the Premier League making him one of the country’s premier creative talents.
The main criticism which has dogged the Wolves attacker throughout his whole career has been his finishing ability. At the start of the season, he had gotten himself into countless great positions, but it seemed like nothing was going in for him. But his goal-scoring form picked up and now, he currently has nine goals in the Premier League, with him scoring a hat-trick in his last game against Chelsea, and 11 in all competitions, already surpassing his previous record of 10.
After being found running in behind the West Bromwich Albion defence, Cunha is now 1 v 1 with the Albion keeper Josh Griffiths. Whereas beforehand, you wouldn’t be surprised to see him miss, the ex-Atletico Madrid man showed composure and slotted it through the keeper’s legs.
Not only has his output been at a high level, but the Brazilian has also still retained his country’s stereotypical flair. He ranks in the upper 96th percentile for successful dribbles in the league. I know purists would look at a dribbling stat with the same disgust famous NBA player Kevin Durant did. However, I’m sorry, but stats are needed as they do paint a picture of just how well-rounded Cunha has been this year.
It seems that the Brazilian international just needed the proverbial arm around the shoulder to get him to showcase his full abilities. Gary O’Neil has provided him with the keys to Wolves attack. Pedro Neto may be the X factor on the right-hand side, but Cunha’s ability to drop deep and link with the midfield, supply his fellow attackers and score at a good rate makes him the most important attacker in a team that has already scored the same amount of Premier League goals as they did last season.
Matheus Cunha’s career has had multiple stops, and many thought Wolverhampton would just be another team that would try and fail to get the best out of his talent. No one foresaw the Midlands-based team would be the destination he was always seeking.
Born in Brazil but made in Wolverhampton, Cunha has a revelation this season. If he carries on this form, he may force himself into the Brazil squad and conversations about whether he’s one the best attackers in the league. His form has shown it, now all he has to do, is show it consistently.
By: Abu Yasin / @Abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Denis Doyle / Getty Images