Average Antony? Why Man Utd’s £85m man could be the transfer flop of the season
Antony’s 2021-22 highlight reel became a viral hit overnight when he initially emerged as a transfer target for Manchester United last summer. The video, uploaded to YouTube by MShow, is packed full of his best moments for Ajax and Brazil, with a whole host of defenders left embarrassed by his outrageous skills.
The video portrays a player capable of changing a game in an instant - one who boasts a deadly left foot that can deliver spectacular goals and passes. Those who watched it certainly would not have batted an eye at the £85 million ($99m) fee United eventually paid Ajax to bring Antony to Old Trafford.
The 22-year-old also benefited from a glowing reference from Erik ten Hag, who spent two years helping him develop at Johan Cruyff ArenA. The former Ajax boss told MUTV after Antony’s unveiling: “He’s a fighter and someone who has a real willingness to win games, I like that.
“He likes to dribble, he sees the final pass, he can score a goal and I think the fans will be excited by him and the way he plays his game.”
Antony has since proven beyond all doubt, that a player should never be judged by a montage of his best bits. He may have recorded 24 goals and 22 assists in 82 games for Ajax, but United didn’t sign a winger who was even close to the finished article.
The Red Devils have made huge strides forward under Ten Hag, re-emerging as potential title contenders while also progressing to the Carabao Cup semi-finals and Europa League knockout phase. Antony has chipped in with a modest total of five goals, and has generally shown that he is indeed “a fighter”.
The Brazil international worked tirelessly out of possession in United’s 3-2 loss at Arsenal on Sunday, helping Aaron Wan-Bissaka cope with the threat of his compatriot Gabriel Martinelli on the left flank.
He was, however, completely ineffective at the other end of the pitch. A number of promising United attacks broke down because he either chose the wrong pass or turned back inside and slowed down the team’s forward momentum.
Arsenal didn’t need to worry about Antony in the same way United did Martinelli, because Oleksandr Zinchenko wasn’t even remotely tested at left-back. The former Ajax star seems to lack speed and rarely gets the better of his marker, making him an easy proposition for experienced full-backs to deal with.
“The concerning thing for me with somebody like Antony is that he can’t beat anyone – and for a Brazilian that’s surprising! I’ve seen clips of him when he was at Ajax and he was somebody who used to beat people,” United legend Rio Ferdinand said on his YouTube channel FIVE.
“I saw [Thomas] Partey – who I wouldn’t put down as like a roaster, a sprinter – absolutely burst past him, and I’m thinking, 'Woah, he [Antony] hasn’t got much power in them legs!'
“When I played with Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia, even Ji-Sung Park would get past the full-back. Not just by going past them but he’d play it and run and get the other side of them. I want to see that from Antony.”
Antony has shown glimpses of the dribbling ability that saw him make a name for himself at Ajax, but he rarely follows it up with a meaningful contribution. He was criticised for showboating in the early stages of the season, but now his all-round game is under the spotlight.
United desperately needed a right-winger, with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho both stronger coming in from the left, and opted for Antony ahead of Cody Gakpo, who ended up joining Liverpool from PSV earlier this month.
Gakpo only cost Liverpool £44m, almost half the amount United forked out for Antony, but there is no evident gulf in class between the pair. Ajax milked him for well beyond his real market value.
Indeed, it has been reported that United officials have privately admitted to overpaying for Antony, who is the fifth-most expensive player in the history of British football behind Jack Grealish, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Chelsea’s newest signing, Mykhailo Mudryk.
A source from the club told ESPN in December: "We've paid for the player we think he can become, not the one he is now."
Antony’s over-reliance on his left foot is turning into a major issue for United, who have no other options on the right wing at present - though Sancho’s second chance could come in that position when he returns to the first-team fold after a self-inflicted period of absence.
Arjen Robben became one of the best wingers of all time despite being one-footed, as defenders never found a way to stop him from shifting the ball onto his left and finding the corner of the net from every possible angle, but it remains to be seen if Antony can follow a similar path.
The likes of Robin van Persie, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos were all left-foot too. Even seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi only uses his right when he absolutely has to, so there is still hope for Antony.
The United attacker has insisted that he is his own harshest critic, but also says he pays no attention to any outside noise.
"I really demand a lot from myself regardless of what people say about me," Antony told TNT Sports after ending an 11-game scoreless streak against Everton in the third-round FA Cup win. "I listen only to the helpful feedback, if not even Jesus Christ could please everyone, who am I to try to do so?"
Antony doesn’t have to please everyone, but to stay in Ten Hag’s starting XI and avoid going down as the biggest transfer flop of the 2022-23 season, he has to start proving that he is not just style over substance.