Brazil’s Carnival season hits the streets this weekend but some 6,000 miles away from the bustling parades, colourful costumes and caipirinhas stands a young Paulista creating his own waves along the River Trent.
It is a gloomy winter’s afternoon in Nottingham but as millions of his compatriots prepare to dance to the beat of bloco street parties, there is a confidence and a swagger that courses through Murillo Santiago Costa dos Santos to lift the rain clouds above the Peter Taylor Stand’s media lounge.
The City Ground is a far cry from the Sambadrome – but Nottingham Forest’s coveted three-time player of the month already has supporters swaying in sync. The snow that has covered several parts of Britain didn’t settle in the East Midlands quite like Forest’s £13.7m summer signing.
“It’s something surreal to be here today when I think back to where I was this time only last year,” says Murillo, who became engaged to his long-term girlfriend Mabili last November. “People tend to go through certain steps to reach this point but for me it has all happened so quickly.
“Around this time last year I was playing for Corinthians U20s in the Copinha [a national youth tournament] and I didn’t even have a car. I was having to use the bus or an Uber to get to training.
“A year on, I have a marvellous structure where everything feels in place. In Brazil, we often talk about there being no certainty over what happens tomorrow so it is about making the most of every moment – especially as a footballer where a career is very short.”
A devoutly religious man, Murillo only turned to 11-a-side football aged 10 having been schooled on the hardcourts of futsal. It was around that time that he experienced a personal tragedy in the passing of his father, Fabio.
His mother Dona Rosa would play the dual role of father, in his own words, and assume responsibility of taking him to training across several youth teams in Sao Paulo but his pathway to the Premier League was potholed by initial rejection in a search to find his best position.
He started out as a striker, then a midfielder, and it was only as a 16-year-old when he joined Corinthians from Uniao Barbarense that he converted into a defender. His senior league debut against Palmeiras in April 2023 was a poignant moment for his family, a fulfilment of his father’s dream.
“I was going through a really good run of form with Corinthians last season when I felt I could take my career further and reach for a higher level,” Murillo continues. “The results weren’t always there but my performances were good.
“I felt I could do more. Of course, I didn’t imagine I would be here in Nottingham but I certainly felt prepared to make the jump to the Premier League. Breaking into the first team at Corinthians, I soon realised the ascent wasn’t as steep as I initially thought it would be.
“Now that I’m here, I know that the Premier League is the ultimate level so I always have to keep improving.”
Murillo is six months into a five-year contract he penned at Forest amid interest from Napoli, Manchester City and West Ham. His whirlwind, meteoric rise speaks to his maturity. The 21-year-old has started all 17 Premier League games since making his debut in October.
At just over 6ft, he is not tall by centre-back standards but his square-like frame makes him hard to dislodge as the chief orchestrator of Nuno Espirito Santo’s survival hopes.
Murillo is already onto his second manager at his new club but adapting to different training methods is nothing new having worked under four coaches at Corinthians in a short space of time. One man in particular played a big part in his development.
“The person I worked with for the longest period of time was Vanderlei Luxemburgo,” Murillo points out. “He’s been at Real Madrid and also was the head coach of the national team so I learned a lot from him.
“He’s a very experienced coach along with his assistant Melo who has worked with hundreds of top players. He would always drill into me the importance of minimising errors. He would say to me, ‘if the pass isn’t there, don’t force it’. Of course, all my previous coaches have been important but I think I’ve learned the most from him.
“Every coach has their own style, their own tactics and their own way of playing but I’ve always taken his words forward with me and he was fundamental in me becoming the player I am today.”
How Nuno is seeking solid foundation
Forest sit 16th in Premier League, four points worse off than at the same stage last season under Steve Cooper as they prepare to host Newcastle on Saturday Night Football, live on Sky Sports.
In his bid to create a solid platform, Espirito Santo has his side starting their sequences of play closer to their own goal than any other Premier League side.
They also have the lowest pressing numbers in the division, ranking 20th for PPDA (passes they allow opponents before making a defensive action), and 19th for high turnovers.
Since Espirito Santo took charge, the average starting position of their sequences has got even deeper – suggesting Newcastle may face a particularly low block at times on Saturday. But Murillo believes – in spite of what the stats might show – that Forest are more front-footed in their approach.
“When I first arrived here [under Steve Cooper], I felt we had a more guarded, defensive style playing with three centre-backs. Perhaps it was more a case of the opponents we faced at that point. We played Tottenham, Chelsea Liverpool and Arsenal so our focus was on nullifying their attacks.
“Nuno has changed that. I feel we now have a more attacking style and the manager tells us to be more courageous on the ball.
“He tells us to trust in our quality and we should because we have the ability to play. I feel we’re more at ease and now when we come up against the big teams, we’re playing more as a back four because we know we can match them for quality and can go toe-to-toe with them. That’s been the difference.”
Sels the answer to Forest’s defensive struggles?
One problem Forest have encountered under both their managers this term has been defending set-pieces.
No side in the Premier League have conceded more goals from such situations while four of the last six goals they have conceded have been from set-pieces – including Justin Kluivert’s opener at the Vitality Stadium last weekend.
Looking closer at the opposition’s delivery, 50 per cent of Forest’s crosses faced at set-pieces have gone into the six-yard box, with opponents looking to pressurise the goalkeeper.
This season, Matt Turner and Odysseas Vlachodimos have some of the poorest goalkeeping numbers; Turner has the second-lowest xG prevented, and Vlachodimos has the lowest save ratio of goalkeepers with at least five starts.
Matz Sels is expected to face his former club having made his first start against Bournemouth – and Murillo hopes to quickly build a rapport with the Belgian to improve on a record of just one home clean sheet this term.
“As a defender, I know how important it is to build a strong link and a relationship with your other centre-half and your goalkeeper. The three that we have here are all very different in terms of their qualities but I have confidence in all three of them.
“The connection is vital and we all communicate very well but of course having a settled goalkeeper to improve on that bond would be beneficial and make it easier.”
Biggest footballing inspirations
“I didn’t have a defined position on the pitch when I was growing up playing so my inspirations weren’t who they are now. I would watch clips of Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane as much as I would admire Thiago Silva, who I now look to model my game on.
“[Virgil] van Dijk is another current player I look up to. I watched videos of [Alessandro] Nesta, [Paulo] Maldini and [Fabio] Cannavaro, who became the best defender in the world, and they all have inspired me from the moment I realised I would become a centre-back.
“I’m always watching clips of Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Militao and Gil [a former Corinthians team-mate]. As a Brazilian, they are all reference points for me.”
Who Forest must stop to beat Newcastle again
Forest’s concerns off the pitch after being charged with breaching Premier League Profitability and Sustainability Rules aren’t helped by what lies ahead on it. Espirito Santos’s side have no remaining home games against any of the Premier League’s current bottom six.
They still have to play all four teams below them away from home but just three wins from their last 31 Premier League games on the road places greater emphasis on achieving a second statement win over Newcastle in six weeks.
Eddie Howe’s side have already conceded more goals than in all of last season and have lost half of their six games to date against the league’s current bottom five.
They start the weekend 13 points adrift of fourth-placed Aston Villa and must seek a result without Alexander Isak and Anthony Gordon, but the division’s entertainers are coming to town. With a combined xG for and against this season of 86.7, which performer possesses the biggest threat?
“When I’ve watched Newcastle this season, I’ve seen how Bruno Guimaraes links everything,” says Murillo. “He is the one who dictates play and the majority of their goals and assists come from his feet as he’s a very clever player.
“A lot of their goals come down his side but in the Premier League, every team has players of the highest level so we have to be ready for whatever team we face.
“It’s not going to be easy and we know we need to be strong and bring an intensity to the game. That’s the only way we’re going to win.”
Most difficult Premier League striker to mark
“For me, the toughest opponent I’ve faced so far has been Gabriel Jesus. He’s such a clever forward. He likes to move across the line and picks up spaces on the left and the right.
“He has a surreal intelligence and can unbalance a defence with his movement besides his unbelievable technical ability. Dominic Solanke at Bournemouth is the same. I just played against him for a second time and he’s very annoying because of his movement. He loves to run in behind and drop deep. It was tough marking him.”
Grabbing Brazil call-up ‘with teeth and nails’
Olympic champions Brazil suffered a setback in their bid to secure a place at this year’s Paris Games after their U23s slumped to a shock 1-0 defeat by Paraguay on Monday in the final-four South American qualifying tournament.
Murillo is eligible to play at next summer’s tournament were Brazil to qualify – and the centre-back says he would jump at the opportunity to represent his country.
“I’m closer now to realising the dream of playing for my country but I’m taking things step by step. I know I can achieve a great deal but I’m very relaxed… maybe too relaxed. With everything that has happened so quickly, I don’t think the penny has dropped that I’m playing in the Premier League – the best in the world.
“I’m still coming to terms with being voted club player of the month for a third time. I’m taking it in quite slowly but it has always been my dream to play for the Brazil national team ever since I was playing at youth level. I will leave that to the hands of God.
“There’s a new coach in place and I’m sure Dorival Junior is watching the Premier League. He’s not just watching me but all the Brazilian players. If the call-up comes, I will grab it with teeth and nails.”
It is a common phrase among Portuguese speakers and an image that is entirely befitting of a man who holds the keys to Forest’s future success.
How to follow Nottingham Forest vs Newcastle
Nottingham Forest vs Newcastle is live on Saturday Night Football on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm.
Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.
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