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Matheus Nunes to Man City: Wolves ball-carrier has a specific skill that Pep Guardiola wants from his midfield

With Manchester City interested in Wolves midfielder Matheus Nunes, what is it that Pep Guardiola has spotted in the Portugal international? Adam Bate looks at the numbers…

Matheus Nunes in Wolves' third kit for the 2023/24 Premier League season
Image: Could Matheus Nunes could be trading the blue of Wolves' third kit for the blue of Manchester City?

"Matheus Nunes is one of the best players in the world today." That comment from Pep Guardiola came in February of last year after Manchester City’s win over Sporting in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie. He is a long-time admirer.

Nunes joined Wolves for £38m at the end of that season, going on to provide glimpses of the quality that Guardiola had recognised in him. An outrageous strike on the angle against Chelsea in April made the shortlist for Premier League goal of the season.

But City's interest in Nunes is still intriguing given that this remains his only goal in the competition. That it was such a spectacular one sums up his time at Wolves - hints of what he is capable of but a frustrating inability to put all the parts of his game together.

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The Good Morning Transfers panel on whether Matheus Nunes would fit Man City

What is the likelihood that Guardiola can succeed where Wolves failed? There are certainly mitigating circumstances at Molineux. A clear vision for the player would be a start because there has been confusion about how best to use Nunes since he came to England.

Bruno Lage, his first coach at Wolves, was aware of the partnership with Joao Palhinha that had been the foundation of Sporting's first title success in 19 years. Playing alongside a robust stopper had been the ideal foil, encouraging Nunes to carry the ball from deep.

Ball-carrying ability

Matheus Nunes is one of five Premier League players to carry the ball over 500 metres so far this season

At Wolves, where twin playmakers Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho had been long-time midfield partners, Nunes found a different environment. And besides, Lage lasted only eight games before caretaker boss Steve Davis re-envisaged Nunes' position.

Pushing him into a more advanced role was an attempt to tighten up. "We tried him in a two," said Davis in October. "He needs to learn that position. He was very loose in that position. We want him to be loose, but he is better being loose in higher positions."

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Matheus Nunes' positions for Wolves in the Premier League
Image: Nunes has been used in many different positions at Wolves so far

The problem was that Nunes' higher starting position robbed him of space to run into - thus negating his greatest strength. He is not a natural back-to-goal player, he is at his best when carrying the ball with the game ahead of him. Davis could not trust him there.

Julen Lopetegui reached a similar conclusion, albeit with another solution. Nunes' goal against Chelsea came from the right. He started on the left in beating Liverpool. "He starts on the wing, but after he can go into midfield," said Lopetegui. "He is trying to adapt."

It was in that hybrid role from the left that Nunes began this season under Gary O'Neil - his fourth manager at Wolves. He caught the eye with an impressive display against Manchester United and had his moments against Brighton despite being sent off late in the game.

The statistics show that Nunes does things that others do not. His ball-carrying ability stands out, particularly as someone who can do it in central areas. He ranks among the top midfielders in the Premier League with 19 ball carries in the first two games, one of only five players to carry the ball over 500 metres so far this season.

The numbers are similar to those of City midfielders Rodri and Mateo Kovacic. But while those two are often moving into space, Nunes is finding a path through opposition players. He has attempted more take-ons than any Premier League player this season.

Matheus Nunes of Wolves has the most take-ons in the Premier League this season

What is particularly unusual about Nunes is those quick feet for an upright player, that ability to glide between markers. "He is a great dribbler with the ball and travels quicker with it than without it," said Davis. It frequently takes him past two men or more in one run.

There is a metric that highlights this clearly. Nunes has attempted six multiple take-ons this season. That is twice as many as any other Premier League player with the exception of Julio Enciso who has tried it four times. It has helped to get his team up the pitch.

Matheus Nunes has the most multiple take-ons in the Premier League this season

Although useful, Wolves needed more from a record signing than this. "He has to improve a little bit his finishing," said Lopetegui. Despite that strike against Chelsea, one goal from an expected-goals tally of 2.5 is not enough. Nunes has only one assist too.

An underwhelming return for one club might not be such an issue for his next one, however. Guardiola may fancy that Nunes is capable of improving those numbers. More importantly, he may take the view that this is not the priority for his Manchester City team.

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They do not have a scoring problem. They do not even have a creativity problem. If Nunes can collect the ball from inside his own half and travel with the ball at speed before playing a simple pass to a team-mate close to the opposition penalty box, that is useful.

"Matheus has got huge talent," said Davis. "It is just about finding a place for him in the team where he is going to be at his best." That depends on Nunes' own positioning, of course. A move to Man City might show that it also depends on those around him.

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