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Matheus Cunha

Profiling Atlético Madrid's underutilised Brazilian forward

Atlético Madrid's Matheus Cunha standing with hands on hips
Thomas Pearce

AUGUST 24, 2022

Who is Matheus Cunha?

In what could be the briefest flash in the pan of Manchester United transfer rumours, Matheus Cunha represents both a step in the right direction recruitment-wise for the Red Devils, and a symbol of their scatter-gun approach at the same time.

None of the blame, of course, can be laid at the feet of Cunha – he is a player with bundles of ability, as will be detailed below – but in terms of suiting his strengths, or fixing United’s problems, he does little for either on paper.

Cunha started his career out in his native Brazil, with current Brasileirão league strugglers Coritiba, and eventually left for pastures new in Switzerland with Sion in 2017. This was before he had made a senior appearance in Brazil, bucking the trend of many Brazilians who find their ways to Europe. 

A single stellar season at Sion was all it took to convince the data-driven team at RB Leipzig, signing for a fairly substantial fee somewhere in the region of €15 million. He immediately showed promise, but the attacking lineup at Leipzig during this period (Timo Werner, Yussef Poulsen, Marcel Sabitzer and co.) meant his gametime was more limited than he would’ve liked, leading to only a season and a half later, joining Hertha BSC for roughly €19 million.

It was there where he immediately hit the ground running, and became a big fish in a small pond so-to-speak, shining in his first half-season at the club, with his first and only full campaign at the club being less impressive, but it was in a team that only finished two points above the relegation play-off places.

Regardless, it was still enough for Atlético Madrid only last summer to splash out €27 million on him. In truth, he spent last season as 5th choice striker in Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2, but he still managed to shine in patches, becoming somewhat of an unsung hero amongst the fans. 

Now, he attracts interest from one of the world’s most negligent clubs for double the fee Atleti paid for him just 12 months ago. One may suggest he stay put for his own good…

Matheus Cunha playing for Atlético Madrid in the UEFA Champions League during the 2021/22 season

Matheus Cunha's style of play



Cunha stands out as an ideal candidate for a Simeone attacker. At 6’0” and 76kg, he has the stature to keep the ball and hold off defenders, whilst also possessing a burst of pace and agility to stretch the pitch if necessary. He boasts the attributes of both a Diego Costa and an Ángel Correa in one striker, allowing flexibility from match to match. 

In the air, however, he is not a player who a goalkeeper can rely upon to launch balls up field for him to collect the ball and await teammates. His aerial win rate last season was just 25.4%, he is simply not reliable enough in the air to be the only centre-forward in a side who enjoy that style of attacking, hence at a club like Hertha, he was moved to more of an attacking-midfield role. 

When the ball is on the ground, Cunha finds much more success in keeping possession long enough to involve his teammates and spark counter-attacks. His neat first-touch combines nicely with his ability to spin his opponents, shifting his body weight quickly from side to side, and often a quick burst of acceleration is enough to get away from his marker.

Sometimes this ends up in him meeting another wall of pressure, and getting dispossessed, but equally there are occasions where he carries this momentum well, and gets Atleti into genuine openings on goal.

He is a reasonable creative threat too, and 0.19 xA per 90 last season is evidence to suggest this. Across his career he has been a dual-threat, both goalscoring and creativity, but he’s never excelled at either in a single season. Still, this means that he adds a layer of fluidity to an attack.

For a striker who does like to shoot rather frequently, he is very selfless in giving his all for the team, and what’s best for it’s chance to succeed. This can be said of his pressing work, which will be discussed later, but his ability to make the necessary runs or drop deep to act a link-man enables the teams he plays in to create chances more frequently. 

Matheus Cunha boasts the attributes of both a Diego Costa and an Ángel Correa in one striker, allowing flexibility from match to match

This is clearly what Simeone sees as Cunha’s biggest value proposition for Atelti, as much of the Brazilian’s gametime (only eight league starts) was spent operating in deeper spaces, acting as the link-man between midfield and attack in transition, often driving through the centre of the pitch to release an often nicely weighted through pass to one of his attacking teammates, be it a winger or his striking partner.

This would ultimately mean that Cunha would register the pass before the assist, and often not have the opportunity to score the goal either.

That’s a shame, too, as Cunha has some solid instincts as a goalscoring striker. He’s intelligent enough to time his runs and create separation from his opponents, most of the time it’s just a matter of if his team-mates will find him.

Most of his shots do come from inside the box, either from pull-backs, or from his runs in behind that are spotted by a deeper teammate. It’s clear that, although he has some good creative attributes, Cunha wants to score goals, and he creates openings whenever the opportunities arise. 

He does slightly underperform his very solid npxG per 90 (0.51 vs 0.53) for two main reasons however. One, he looks to shoot too early sometimes. This is a feature shared amongst many young attackers, but Cunha especially so. He can have waves of support around him, but decide to shoot from deep inside the left half-space.

Two, he hits his shots with far too much power most of the time. Of course, this can be effective as, when accurate, it’s very difficult for a keeper to stop, but this also means the consistency of his shots is all over the place. The best finishers, when they do miss, tend to miss by the smallest margins, but Cunha efforts can be completely wayward a lot of time. 

When he does go for placement over power, he has a serious finish in his locker, right into the corners. One of his three goals at the Olympics last summer for Brazil was just like this, edge of the box territory, and he slotted the ball into the bottom left effortlessly.

In fact, the goal Cunha is likely best known for, when he was at Leipzig playing against Leverkusen, was emblematic of the 23-year-old at his best, in full flow, very difficult to stop. Nonetheless, power is his most frequent choice of ball-striking, and it has the ability to frustrate fans, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, if Erik ten Hag has spotted Cunha as a target for his United side, it is likely his off-the-ball work that would’ve gathered his attention the most. In simple terms, Cunha is a committed and effective presser who ranks one of the highest in Europe for overall pressures, tackles, and interceptions as a forward. 

He doesn’t restrict his defensive work to the top of the pitch, and this plays a big part in the sheer volume of his pressures. He is willing to chase defenders well beyond his station to win the ball back, and with his size, he is able to rough up opponents and win the ball back often, with the occasional foul as a side effect.

This is partly the reason why he has been the designated link-player between midfield and attack however. He will regain possession lower down the pitch, with teammates ahead of him, meaning he will often instigate transitions, rather than be on the end of them. This is something United should keep in mind if they do go all out for Cunha – he hasn’t profiled as a pure out-and-out goal scorer so far in his career, but a second-striker who facilitates fluidity in attack.  

Forecasting Matheus Cunha's future

In the following weeks, the reality of United’s interest in Cunha will become apparent, and the likely case is that a €50 million-plus asking price will be too much. At 23 years old, he is at a ripe age to produce noteworthy goal and assist numbers, if gametime was guaranteed.

After all, in 1,063 league minutes last term, he racked up 10 combined goals and assists, in a new league, for a new team, and an entirely different system. He was arguably the second most exciting Atleti attacker last season behind Ángel Correa.

One thing you can grant Cunha, he is adaptable and clearly gets up to speed quickly with tactical instructions, which is a fantastic competency to have in a young forward. Although, moving to four clubs in five years may not be the most appealing sight from a manager’s point of view, who will want at least a few years out of a fairly big acquisition – years which are not guaranteed by Cunha. 

If Erik ten Hag has spotted Cunha as a target for his United side, it is likely his off-the-ball work that would’ve gathered his attention the most. In simple terms, Cunha is a committed and effective presser who ranks one of the most frequent in Europe

Does he suit the Ten Hag striker role? Not entirely. He doesn’t have the complete hold-up play that Sébastian Haller boasted, and he has yet to produce above ten league goals in a single league season since his days at Sion. United, right now, need a striker who can score goals, since the other players in their attacking triumvirate are not contributing either.

From the player’s perspective, Cunha would be better off sharing minutes at Atleti than joining United for an inflated fee and suffering from all the pressures of playing in that (currently) toxic environment. To play devil’s advocate, it would be a good opportunity to demonstrate his skills on the biggest stage, and his reputation would likely improve, with more eyes on him.

Matheus Cunha is a dynamic striker that combines different skills. He has elements of Diego Costa and Ángel Correa. He’s a frequent and effective presser, as well as a strong ball-carrier in transition. He’s also adept at linking play.

Matheus Cunha’s primary weaknesses are his shot selection (taking shots too early, using the wrong techniques) and slack close control in certain situations.

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