The big story that dominated last year’s Brazilian Serie B was Internacional’s bid to return to the top flight. The Porto Alegre giants had been relegated for the first time in their history but managed to return at the first time of asking. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing and they could only manage a second-place finish behind America Mineiro.
Something of a yo-yo club in recent years, America had a torrid time last time out in the Brasileirao, finishing bottom and even going on a run of over 600 minutes without a goal. Nevertheless, they have quickly bounced back and their Serie B title win was made all the more memorable thanks to the eye-catching performances of their diminutive young starlet Matheusinho.
Born in Belo Horizonte, Matheusinho joined local side America as a 13-year-old. Although overshadowed by illustrious neighbours Atletico Mineiro and Cruzeiro, America have a long history and a reputation for nurturing talent, having brought through players such as Tostao, Gilberto Silva and, more recently, Richarlison.
Part of the Brazil squad at the 2015 U17 World Cup, Matheusinho performed well at prestigious Copinha youth tournament in 2016, scoring four goals and laying on five assists as America reached the semi-finals. Manager Givanildo Oliveira promptly promoted him to the senior squad for the Campeonato Mineiro and he made his senior debut against Tombense. He made two more appearances as O Coelho went on to win the state league.
His meteoric rise continued as he made his senior league debut in June that year and, despite America’s dreadful Brasileirao campaign, made 18 Serie A appearances and earned a contract renovation to 2021, containing a reported €30m release clause.
That summer Matheusinho was also called up to be part of sparring squad against the senior national team, quickly making a strong impression and becoming friends with Neymar in process. The PSG superstar even sent him a personal message for his birthday last week.
2017 would be the year Matheusinho really established himself though, as the impish playmaker made 24 appearances as America won the Serie B title. His performances didn’t go unnoticed and he was named by Four Four Two as the 14th best teenager in world football. Now ready for another shot at the big time, Matheusinho could well be one of the revelations of this year’s Brasileirao. If he hasn’t already been snapped up by then, that is.
Standing a mere 1.64m tall, Matheusinho’s physical disadvantage has meant that he’s had to develop mesmerising dribbling skills in order to get the better of his opponents. His low centre of gravity, bursts of acceleration and close control make him a nightmare to dispossess.
Matheusinho thrives in one-on-one situations and has that potent blend of creativity and fearlessness that makes him great to watch, invoking Brazilian dribble merchants of the past. His lack of height often means he is usually used out wide on either flank but he often likes to drift in-field and get involved in play more centrally.
In the example above we see Matheusinho starting on the left wing, before cutting inside onto his favoured right foot, beating two defenders and firing a low shot from the area. His jinking run along the edge of the penalty box leaves the defenders in two minds and desperate not to bring him down for a penalty, thus giving him the requisite space to nip past and get his shot away.
Below we see another example of Matheusinho in full flow, this time on the right flank, and just how dangerous he can be when given space and the chance to isolate a defender in a one-on-one situation.
Usually deployed on the right wing, Matheusinho uses his aforementioned pace and dribbling to get to the byline and whip dangerous balls across the corridor of uncertainty. His excellent balance means he can change direction and speed in a blink of an eye, opening up that half a yard to squeeze a cut back into the danger zone.
Rather than just relying on his silky skills and good crossing ability, Matheusinho also shows good decision making. He knows when to draw opponents, when to hit an early swinging cross and when to come inside and attack the half-spaces, such as the example below.
He even has the presence of mind and vision to use his less favoured left foot when necessary too.
For a player blessed with such sublime skills, his unselfishness marks him out as more than a fancy dan.
As we have seen, his physique, dribbling and crossing means that Matheusinho is often played on the right but he can just as easily operate in the hole behind the strikers. His off-the-ball movement means he is adept at drifting into spaces where he can punish the opposition, such as the example
Matheusinho has the awareness and deft touch to quickly flick the ball over anyone who tries to press him and often wins a lot of fouls in dangerous positions. He also boasts a keen eye for a through ball – another aspect of his game which makes him much more than just a lightweight wide man.
As both the examples against Santa Cruz above demonstrate, Matheusinho has a penchant for a spectacular long-range goal from time to time. Given how sweetly he strikes the ball off his right foot and his ability to get into goal-scoring positions, he really should have more goals to his name. Last season he only managed two goals but as his performances in the Copinha suggested, he certainly has the capability to add more goals to his game.
Currently recovering from a knee ligament injury sustained in October, Matheusinho should be back in time for the start of the Serie A season and he will be one of the most exciting attacking young talents in the league. America-MG will most likely struggle again but Matheusinho should at least be able to showcase his considerable talents on a bigger stage.
The next step will probably be to one of the big clubs in Brazil, as a move to Europe right now seems a bit premature, especially as he still needs to bulk up his small frame. His short stature may well put off some clubs but Lille are reportedly interested and the example of Bernard – another diminutive Belo Horizonte-born attacker – should provide inspiration that he can succeed in more physical leagues.
It’s still too soon to know just what levels Matheusinho can reach but the early signs are very promising indeed. One thing’s for certain, the little man from Minas Gerais is set for a breakthrough year and he won’t be sneaking under the radar for too much longer.