“We’ve missed a player on the right wing. All the players, they can play there, like Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, but they prefer the centre or the left side. Now we have a player who can play good from the right wing – a missing link.”
Erik ten Hag has pushed hard for Manchester United to sign Antony all summer, and his trust and desires were given early vindication on Sunday afternoon at a raucous Old Trafford. Antony marked his United bow with a goal, and while not perfect, as debuts go, this was one of the better ones.
Last week Manchester United finally caved in to the €100m price tag their former club, Ajax, had put on his head for the final days of the transfer window – a massive price and a large overspend, granted, but it’s what Ten Hag wanted. Now he has his man and the early signs are good.
We’ve had plenty of experience of Manchester United buying players for a lot of money. It often goes wrong. Ten Hag has sidelined club captain Harry Maguire over the last three weeks – United’s third most expensive signing – and wasn’t able to stop United losing Paul Pogba, their most expensive ever, leaving on a free transfer for the second time in his career earlier this summer.
Neither Pogba, at £89m, nor Maguire, £80m, have proven successful in United red. Antony’s fee now sits between the two but his appearance on Sunday inspired enough confidence to think his United fate may not follow the same path as theirs – at least early on.
Antony was brought to Europe by Ten Hag two seasons ago, and elevated to the levels of a (debatably of course) €100m player under his guidance. Ten Hag has been adamant in his belief Antony is capable of the step up and able to deal with the pressure that comes with it. And it’s only taken 55 minutes of one appearance to see the qualities in the Brazilian he wanted to bring across with him from Amsterdam.
The 22-year-old slotted straight in to the starting lineup after minimal training with his new team in large part due to his familiarity with the Ten Hag way of playing, which United, though they’ve won four on the bounce in the Premier League, have not yet mastered. Even Casemiro, a multiple time Champions League winner, isn’t up to speed from the get go and can’t earn a place. He has the mighty Scott McTominay to oust.
There’s a long road to getting this team playing in the manager’s image and while some boxes have been ticked, there are plenty more to come. Familiarity is key to ticking the boxes faster.
Antony may bring fancy flicks and neat tricks, but he does have down the first requirement of a Ten Hag unit – to put the work in. The 22-year-old is more than willing to track back and while not yet fit enough to complete 90 minutes – Ten Hag said he was “lacking a bit of power” after missing training during the process of his transfer in his post-match press meet – he is prepared to put in the effort to help set standards for his new teammates.
He also fits in a positional sense, and helps balance this United team out with a player type United haven’t had for years – a natural on the right.
Antony is willing to play on the touchline, from out to in, to hold United’s width and allow more space in the middle for creative players Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes to work their own magic. And when the time comes, not a moment before, Antony comes alive.
His debut goal was an early justification for Ten Hag’s methods and willingness to part with such extraordinary money in an extraordinary market. United worked the ball to the point where Antony became a spare man and once afforded the opportunity, he took it with a calm we haven’t really seen from recent carnations of Manchester United right wingers. The square pegs in round holes.
Simple though the finish was and as easy as he made it look, you struggle to think of an alternative in the United squad who would guarantee a goal in that situation, 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo aside. All of United’s attacking options are right footed, and we’ve seen countless occasions in recent years of players afforded similar chances in similar spaces, only for the opportunity to go astray.
Antony offers Ten Hag’s United a natural balance from the right for the first time in years. A missing link, as the Dutchman called it earlier.
But as well as the tactical fits, Antony strikes you as a personality capable of dealing with the expectation. A debut goal will help his confidence, but he already has it in spades. How many players do you know are prepared to whip out a direct-to-camera pose showing claws in celebration?
It’s clear to see already Antony sits on the fine line between confidence and arrogance, and while it won’t always work out in his favour, United have been lacking that kind of personality in their squad for some time.
He even took it upon himself to attempt to lob Aaron Ramsdale from 35 yards, because why not.
Ten Hag’s United are far from complete and have a ton of work to do in order to follow the path to complete. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal proved for large spells of Sunday’s game that they are built in their manager’s image and United are far behind them in that sense. But they’ve at least got the basic requirements back and a foundation to build from.
Antony is here and has slotted straight in, blessed with the confidence of a potential United favourite and the humbleness to work in a modern-thinking manager’s tactical plan.
A long-time problem position may finally have its fix.