If Matheus Cunha is to become the next great Brazilian forward, he has done it atypically.
It could be the weighty heritage of the samba gold and blue. Or the exciting pace and skill associated with the Copacabana. Either way, Brazilian forwards carry a powerful image in the game. This can be a burden, or in some cases fuel genius.
Matheus Cunha is still only twenty one years old. However, he has already shown enough in his limited career thus far to set hearts racing at the next great Brazilian attacker.
His story has not been simple however. A story that couples enormous flair and talent with a career minded level-headedness. First Time Finish spoke to FC Lugano manager and former coach of Cunha, Maurizio Jaccobacci, to hear first hand what he can achieve.
A Swiss Schooling
Cunha is part of a burgeoning rank of exceptional Brazilian attackers of a similar age. Vincius Junior, Rodrygo, Richarlison and Gabriel Jesus are headliners’ of this crop. Though Cunha’s journey to the top has been significantly different compared to his peers.
Raised in the Coritiba Academy until the age of eighteen, Cunha’s departure would occur unceremoniously. His performances in tournaments such as the Sao Paulo and Dallas Cup attracted potential suitors. It would be an unorthodox move by the Brazilian. Not many Brazilian talents venture to Europe before making their mark in their homeland. Let alone to Switzerland.
Sion had finished eighth in 2016-17, but they were on the brink of relegation and sitting bottom of the table by February of 2018. The hiring of Maurizio Jacobacci would change everything. The club would narrowly miss out on Europa League qualification in a remarkable, unprecedented turn in results, catalysing the development of a certain young Brazilian in the process.
Sion’s late push was testament to Jacobacci’s management. So to was the development of an eighteen year old Cunha, who would finish the season with ten goals and eight assists. His first senior season in the game.
The youthful exuberance and potential of Cunha was present from the start. His manager remembers it well.
‘He was extremely willing to learn, hard working and permanently participating in training with a positive joy .As a person he was very nice, funny and totally positive and he wanted constantly to learn as fast as possible.’ recalls Jacobacci exclusively to First Time Finish.
Relegation battles such as the one Sion encountered are not a battle of ability. It is character and heart that pull teams through these dark spells. Cunha, even as a teenager, embodied this spirit with extraordinary talent.
‘It was very pleasant to coach and train him. He worked constantly good and hard to improve his level. He was eager to learn and open to improve about my ideas and philosophy.’
What is Cunha?
Those that watch and invest in Cunha’s development will find it hard to not wax lyrical about him. At six foot tall he possesses the stature of a strong centre forward. Yet with an ease of touch and explosive pace, he belies his stature to be an all round forward.
‘He has a great acceleration, very fast with and without ball and in addition he’s carrying great technical skills, an unpredictable gameplay and an excellent goal instinct.’
Displaying such physical versatility make him valuable and effective anywhere across the forward line. At Leipzig he would often feature centrally in a striker partnership, or wide right.
In his role at Hertha Berlin, he has occupied everywhere from the left wing, to attacking midfield, to a lone striker. Jacobacci was quickly aware of his breadth of positional intelligence.
‘When I took over the first team, he played in 4-3-3 the right winger position. Later I changed his position due to his potential and it was a key step for his future. I put him as a striker and which it paid him back with his current success now.’
That awareness of his potential centrally has paid dividends for Hertha Berlin. He is the side’s talisman, feeding deft through balls to the forwards and occupying intelligent spaces to shoot himself. His defensive game is impressive too, as the next section will illustrate. A brilliant example of his aggressive pressing was in a 2017/18 away fixture Luzern (0.55 in the video below).
Having triggered the press, and harried the centre backs, Cunha follows the pass to the goalkeeper. Like a whippet he swarms him, tackles and rolls the ball into an empty net. A ferocious competitor with lethal commitment.
Landing in Leipzig
Cunha’s performances in Switzerland did not go unnoticed. It is unsurprising that one admirer was RB Leipzig, a renowned pantheon of young undiscovered talent.
Sion had been preparing for Cunha to leave. Yet for a club the size of Leipzig to swoop took even Jacobacci by surprise.
‘We expected to lose him that summer. For a club the size of Leipzig to come, even we were surprised at that’.
Few doubt Leipzig’s recruitment of those in Cunha’s profile. It seemed that they had landed their next superstar. Yet it never truly materialsed in east Germany for the young Brazilian.
He had been brought in to cover starting forward Timo Werner. As ever with Leipzig there was the air of succession about the move too, preparing for life after Werner.
Thirty five league appearances over two seasons show the phasing in of a young talent. However, just eleven of these were starts and Cunha only had three goal involvements to show for it.
He had moments. His goal in a 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen in April 2019 for example was nominated for the Puskas Award. A pirouette followed by a delightful lob of the goalkeeper. A puppet on the string of an ethereal console player.
Hertha Berlin came calling in January 2020, capitalising on a supreme talent desperate to get more playing time. It is rare for Leipzig to relinquish a player so young, and contextually unfulfilled. Hertha were soon to reap the rewards of the East German’s fruits.
Eye bulging numbers
The stats show that Cunha was by no means a flop in East Germany. However since moving to Berlin his metrics bare the hallmarks of a different beast. His shooting accuracy has risen from 43.8% in his final spell as Leipzig to 54.5% (fbref.com). Although his volume of shots might have fallen to 3.15, the lethality of said efforts is, well lethal.
Understat suggest he isn’t running wildly hot either. He is mildly outperforming his xG and xGA by less than 1.0. Were this a high figure then one might point to a player getting lucky, or their form being unsustainable. Cunha’s prominence in this department shows that this level of efficiency is his par.
Within the league he ranks fifth for key passes (17) and second for players dribbled past (24). Dynamic and creative, Cunha is a menace in the final third both as a final ball creator or beating his man.
His defensive work is also impressive. His nine interceptions are fourth best in the league, whilst he ranks sixth for progressive carry distance. Hertha are a side that sit deep out of possession without pressing ferociously. Instead they await for mistakes in possession, such as a stray pass, to swarm forward in transition. Cunha not only enacts this in cutting out these passes but also as the carrier in chief to drive the team upfield.
For a player so young to show ability at both ends of the pitch in this way is remarkable. It also demonstrates a unique and varied skillset that sides of many levels require.
Captivating the Capital
The plethora of attacking options at Leipzig’s disposal saw them willing to sell Cunha. Hertha Berlin on the other hand were going through their own rebuild, spending more than any other European club in the winter window.
Cunha would be one of four January arrivals, including Lucas Tousart and Krzyzstof Piątek and Lucas Tousart. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann would last only two weeks after the transfer window shut however, with Bruno Labbadia taking his place in April 2020.
Hertha would finish tenth after a tumultuous season. The arrivals of Cunha, Piątek, Tousart and Dodi Lukebabkio the season before, showed that this project was far beyond the short term. Not that it stopped Cunha impressing in the short term.
He would finish the season with five Bundesliga goals in just eleven appearances, striking a brilliant relationship with Lukebakio. With the Belgian mostly appearing as a right winger or striker, Cunha has operated either in tandem as a front two or playing the pocket behind.
The first seven games of the 2020/21 season have seen the pair involved in 30% and 46% of the teams goals respectively. The pace and power of Lukebakio is the perfect compliment to the intricacy and control of Cunha.
Hertha still show the inconsistencies and frailties of old. However in these two young forwards they possess a devastating attacking potential to hurt any team.
The Cunha Dream
The next step for this exceptional twenty-one year old is an international bow. He has featured sixteen times for the Brazilian under twenty three side, scoring fifteen times. The national team are more than well stocked in attacking areas, with Cunha competing with Neymar, Coutinho, Everton, Vinicius, Rodrygo, Jesus and Roberto Firmino.
Yet it surely cannot be long before he officially oulls on the yellow of Brazil. In an interview with Yellow and Green Football, Cunha highlighted the 2020 Olympics as his goal.
“That’s my big dream for 2020. I’m going to work every day to be present at the 2020 Olympics.” he said in 2019. Moving to Berlin, and developing as he has, has only made that more likely with the event rescheduled for 2021.
Comparisons have been made with Cunha and fellow Brazilians Ronaldinho and Roberto Firmino. Cunha is already accelerating at a rate to carve his own standing in Brazilian and European football.
A speaker of five languages, an infectious and joyful person to coach, and a brilliant footballer to boot. It is no wonder that Maurizio Jacobacci was blown away by the teenager he coached at Sion. If they aren’t already, most of Europe will be too.
Maurizio Jacobacci spoke exclusively to First Time Finish for this feature. We thank Maurizio for his insight into Cunha’s time at Sion.