Matheus Cunha interview: Wolves forward on refinding his passion for football after clicking with Gary O’Neil | Football News

Matheus Cunha has rediscovered his love for football at Wolves, something that he readily admits as he reflects on his first full season in the Premier League. His relationship with Gary O’Neil has been a big factor in him having the best season of his career.

“It is the season that I have enjoyed the most,” he says. “I think it has been the best relationship I have had with a gaffer ever. I have an unbelievable coach who supports everyone a lot. Everything together has helped me to show everyone my best version.”

Nobody is more surprised by that than Cunha himself. When O’Neil replaced Julen Lopetegui, the man who had made him Wolves’ record signing midway through the previous season, there were those wondering what that would mean for the Brazilian.

Cunha was first among them. “It was hard for me, to be honest, because Julen was the manager who brought me here,” he says.

“You always want to work with the manager who brought you here because you feel confident. Gary came and I started to be a little bit afraid about what would happen. I lost the manager who bought me and maybe this manager doesn’t like me.”

There were awkward moments early on. In the first game of the season, Cunha caused all sorts of problems for Manchester United, winning the player of the match award on Monday Night Football despite Wolves losing 1-0. But that is not his overriding memory.

“He changed me in the 77th minute,” recalls Cunha. “I started to think, ‘Oh my god, this season will be hard with this coach. It was my best game and he is changing me, what can I do?’” Worse was to follow after defeat to Brighton in the opening home game.

“I did not have a good reaction and started to do crazy things, saying training was not the best, and Gary came to me and said, ‘I am with you, I am not your enemy. I know it is hard to start a new journey with someone but I am here to help you.’”

It was perhaps the pivotal conversation of Wolves’ season “I will always remember how he looked at me as more than a football player.” Cunha would go on to score 14 goals in all competitions and emerge as one of the Premier League’s most exciting players.

Those early concerns are gone now. “We always joke about it and smile,” says Cunha. “I really enjoy working with him and how he manages the group. I have learned a lot about how to manage hard situations. I have more appreciation for football with him.”

Cunha, it seems, is a different sort of character. “I am Brazilian and a very emotional guy,” he explains. “I do not play football because I want to win, go home and it is finished. I play because it is my whole life. When I was a kid all I wanted to do was play football.”

He has retained that childlike joy to his game, all rabonas and rampaging runs. He does not want to lose that. “I do not want to go to the pitch and be a robot, I want to enjoy it. This season gave me back this part of enjoying the game and playing with a smile.”

It was about finding a balance, allowing Cunha to express himself but ensuring that it would work for the team. That first part-season at Wolves yielded only two goals, both of them in defeats, so there was work to do for O’Neil to make better use of his talents.

Matheus Cunha’s change of position at Wolves can be seen in the heatmaps

“With Julen, our situation was not the best so when we scored one goal we tried to [hold on to] win the game and I needed to run a lot between the lines to help the team win. This season is a season I have enjoyed more and I have more time to be free.”

It is not just the goals. Those powerful runs from deep that were evident at Old Trafford became a feature of Wolves’ season. Speaking at the club’s training ground, he is shown a graphic that lists him among the top dribblers in the Premier League.

Matheus Cunha has attempted among the most dribbles of any player in the Premier League
Matheus Cunha is among the top dribblers in the Premier League this season

“This is crazy for me. I never thought I could dribble like this,” says Cunha, now 25. It reflects his role under O’Neil. “They put me in this position and I love it, to play between 10 and nine, behind the forward. I touch the ball more and have more guys to pass to.”

The challenge has been to make sure that Cunha makes those off-the-ball runs too. “At the start of the season they came to me and showed me some data. They said I need to arrive more in the box. They showed me images of my position and where to arrive.”

The rewards followed, most notably when scoring a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Chelsea in February. “The game against Chelsea was unbelievable. To go there and score three goals, I will always remember it. It was one of the best moments in my career.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Matheus Cunha’s hat-trick in Wolves’ 4-2 win over Chelsea

Wolves supporters might have preferred his goal on the previous weekend in a 2-0 FA Cup win over West Brom, a first Black Country derby victory at the Hawthorns in 28 years. “Maybe it is my second best moment because I felt it from the fans,” says Cunha.

“It was crazy. They cared more about this game than the Premier League.” The goal is referred to in an updated crowd chant about him. “The song is amazing. I tried to learn it and it was a little bit hard, but I love it honestly. I feel like I am connected with the fans.”

All of which makes it more surprising that Cunha had reservations about moving from Atletico Madrid to Wolves because of certain cultural concerns. “I was afraid to come to England, honestly.” Those worries stemmed from his time playing in Germany.

Cunha spent three seasons in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig and Hertha Berlin – with mixed results. “The fans were amazing. But away from football the people were very far away from my culture.” They were naturally more reserved. “Not bad people but cold.”

He adds: “Brazilians are very emotional people who talk, who give hugs. I was afraid to come to England and have the same experience but I came and it was completely different. The people are so good.” Wolverhampton feels more like home than Berlin or Madrid.

His son is settled in school. “He loves to be here. He has even started to learn English with the accent. We love Harry Potter in the house. I say, Harry Potter. He says, no, Harry Potter. Oh my god, he is three years old and he is starting to teach me,” he laughs.

It is a reminder that this is not just about Cunha’s career. “These things are more than football. It is how the people talk to me here. This is the city that has given me back the passion for football. Everything together shows me that I am in the right place.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Matheus Cunha’s two goals for Wolves against Nottingham Forest

Big words from someone so well-travelled already. He was 18 years old when he left Brazil for Switzerland but his first taste of homesickness was when moving from the north of the Brazil to the south in pursuing his football dream at the age of just 14.

“A three-hour flight. Imagine. It was like going to Russia, maybe. Completely different. This was my hard moment of my life.” He remembers the cold weather. “In my city, it was never 25 degrees. People would wear jumpers because normally it was 35 degrees.”

Everything else has seemed a little easier since. “After doing this, going to Switzerland, I felt already prepared. I had left home already.” It helps that he speaks six languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, German and Italian. “I am a man of the world.”

Even so, it is surprising to hear how badly his disappointments at Atletico impacted him. Just prior to joining Wolves, he had missed out on the World Cup with Brazil. He talks of those “moments where I did not feel like I wanted to play football” as a result.

Matheus Cunha celebrates scoring his sides second goal of the game
Matheus Cunha celebrates after scoring for Wolves against West Bromwich Albion

At Wolves, his difficult moments have come as a result of injury.

One week on from his haul at Stamford Bridge, he broke down at home to Brentford having been sick with a fever all week. “You cannot score a hat-trick and then not play the next game. I wanted to play. I felt very confident. At the start of the game, it happens.”

Initial reports suggested that the hamstring problem would keep him out for 12 weeks. He was back in a little over six but not quite quickly enough to help Wolves avoid defeat to Coventry in the FA Cup quarter-final, a game that could have transformed their season.

“It was a very hard moment because you want to do every single thing right to get back soon,” he says. “I did the best recovery in my life. I was maybe 10 days late with my comeback. You never know, maybe if I had played, the injury would still be there.”

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Matheus Cunha speaking about his relationship with Gary O’Neil being the best of his career

There were late night calls to O’Neil badgering him to be included for the game. “I felt like I could play. But I always think I can play.” It is a little insight into how their relationship had grown over the course of the season. It is why he is excited for what is next.

“Maybe we can show we are a team that can go for Europe and things. I hope so. We can show everyone the potential that we have. I am very excited to be here, very excited for the future with Wolves. I am happy, that is the most important thing for me.”

Football can sometimes feel like a grind with its constant demands. Watching Matheus Cunha at his best is a reminder that it can be fun too. For us and for him. “I am very happy to get back my passion to play football, to enjoy, to smile, to play. This is a gift.”

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