When Manchester City’s £53 million signing Matheus Nunes feared his move to the treble winners was off, he pressed the nuclear button leaving behind a sense of betrayal at Wolves.
After City’s opening bid was rejected by Wolves, Nunes refused to train, took his boots home and went on strike, and was never seen again at their Compton training base. That messy departure ensures he will return to Molineux for the first time this weekend to face a hostile reception.
Wolves fans are already feeling mutinous, after a slow start to the season under Gary O’Neil, and Nunes returning to produce a masterclass will only darken the mood.
After joining Wolves in a then club-record deal of £38 million from Sporting last summer, there were high hopes that the Portugal international could drive the club into a bright new era. Yet it proved an underwhelming season for the midfielder, so he returns this Saturday with a point to prove to not only Pep Guardiola, the City manager, but his former employers.
There is little doubt that the 25-year-old is a sublime talent: a ball-carrier who can dictate play, he also possesses a deceptive turn of pace that can take him past opponents. He has been on Guardiola’s radar for over 18 months, while Liverpool’s interest was so strong that Wolves felt compelled to remove a clause entitling Jürgen Klopp to trigger a deal this summer.
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Though Guardiola has back-tracked on his claim that Nunes is “one of the best players in the world”, he is convinced that City have made a quality addition. The loss of De Bruyne until December at the earliest, with a hamstring injury, left the treble winners with an emergency situation shortly before the transfer window closed.
Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze was under consideration, and there were some talks, but Nunes always figured highly after first impressing Guardiola in the 2021-22 season at Sporting.
With Wolves under pressure to raise funds with the threat of breaching financial rules, City felt it would be a far easier deal to pull off. Guardiola consulted former Wolves head coach Julen Lopetegui for his opinion and was given a glowing recommendation. City submitted their first offer of £47 million on August 24, which was instantly turned down. The bid was not significantly higher than the fee Wolves paid the previous year, and there was still a desire for Nunes to continue this season with them.
Nunes arrived at Compton later that day and held talks with sporting director Matt Hobbs. He was advised to stay calm and behave professionally, with Wolves informing him there was still a genuine chance the deal would get agreed: but on their terms. An hour later, Nunes produced an unexpected and fiery response. He refused to train and drove off away from the training ground, even taking his boots with him.
Nunes thought his chance of joining City was gone, and he was already frustrated after Wolves removed that option for Liverpool to sign him this summer. His behaviour angered staff and O’Neil. That proved to be the last time he was seen at Wolves, yet there was still work to be done.
City restarted negotiations the following Wednesday, with director of football Txiki Begiristain holding direct talks with Hobbs. After lengthy talks concerning the fee and various other clauses, it was eventually agreed that City would pay £53 million, with no add-ons, but a 10 per cent sell-on clause. As reported by Telegraph Sport this month, Nunes’s fine of two weeks’ wages for going on strike was factored into the overall deal.
In a separate transfer, Wolves signed midfielder Tommy Doyle on an initial loan with a £4.3 million obligation to sign him permanently next year. Doyle will not be eligible to play against City as he is technically on loan, but Nunes will travel to his old club this weekend.
As a result of his acrimonious departure, he can expect a frosty reception from supporters. Those fans expected more from a player who was their record signing. There is a sense that Nunes’s stand-out performances in the Old Gold can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
His first year in English football was a period of adaptation, with the player admitting towards the end of last season that he had struggled with the pace and ferocity of the Premier League. He only managed one goal [albeit an outstanding strike against Chelsea] and one assist. Nunes has already matched that number of assists with his new club.
He has made an impressive start and after turning 25 only last month he should only get better. There is a commonly held belief that playing alongside more gifted operators will allow him to flourish. At Sporting he was at his best playing alongside a defensive midfielder, freeing him up for more time on the ball, so he should benefit when Rodri returns.
Nunes only needs to look at Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Joao Cancelo and Riyad Mahrez and consider how much they have improved under Guardiola. Saturday’s game at Molineux will be another test of character but City expect him to step up.
It is time for him to show Wolves why Jeff Shi, the club’s chairman, described him as “one of the most exciting prospects in world football” in August 2022.