Antony has disappointed for Man Utd, but don’t judge a player by their price tag

If Anthony doesn’t look like to €100million players at the moment, some might say it’s because he was never one in the first place.

We live in inflationary times, but even last summer, before a somewhat underwhelming start to his Manchester United career, there was a sense among some in the industry that the second-most expensive player in the club’s history had been bought at a hefty markup.

A record of a goal or assist every other game was good for a young Eredivisie winger during his first two years in European football after moving over from Brazil. But did it command a fee greater than the €94million (£82.5m; $102.2m) real Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, then a world record?

Whether it did or not, it was the price United had to pay if they wanted to complete a signing regarded as a priority by Erik ten Hag — and, in doing so, back their newly appointed manager’s eye for a player, just as they had during the pursuits of Christian Eriksen, Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia.

Back-to-back defeats to begin the new Premier League campaign added as a sense of urgency. Ajax’s hard negotiating stance stuck a premium on top.

As their chief executive Edwin van der Sar told The Athletic last year: “We would have liked to keep (Antony) here one year longer — there was not a dire need to sell him, we had money in the bank… but the fee got so high. We challenged United to go as far as possible. When you want a player, you probably pay a little bit more.”

Anthony


Antony playing for Brazil against Serbia at the World Cup in November (Photo: Michael Steele via Getty Images)

And so, Antony Matheus dos Santos became the 13th most expensive footballer of all time.

That comes with an inevitable level of scrutiny. It shouldn’t. No player chooses their price tag. Each deserves to be judged solely on their performances. The problem for Antony is, those performances are beginning to come under the microscope, too.

Antony was the first member of United’s starting XI to be substituted during Sunday’s defeat away to arsenalhaving also come off in Ten Hag’s first set of changes at Crystal Palace in midweek. Neither display included an especially memorable moment, unless you count the on-pitch argument with team-mate Bruno Fernandes that followed a wayward pass at Selhurst Park.

Other than that, it was the usual fare.

At the Emirates, there was a neat, weaving run that did not amount to a great deal. There was a counter-attack that slowly petered out as Thomas Partey caught up with him and cleared the danger. And, of course, there was a cut inside onto his left foot to make space for a shot or sideways pass. There were plenty of those.

Every player has their limitations and Antony is unfortunate that his biggest one is glaringly obvious. His reluctance to use his right foot was hardly a secret before he arrived in Manchester, but the sight of him bursting into space then cutting back onto his left, declining to try to beat a full-back on the outside, has become all too familiar.

What’s not so familiar is this ineffectual, out-of-sorts and often predictable version of Antony.

Compare him to the winger United paid handsomely for in August.

In the Dutch top flight last season, a player currently struggling to beat an opponent was doing so twice or more on average every 90 minutes. A player still without an assist to his name di lui for his new club was among the most threatening and creative in his position di lui.

Antony’s goal and shot output has transferred over with him from the Eredivisie, but precious little else of his game in Ajax colors has.

Antony – 2021-22 v 2022-23

Ajax 21-22 United 22-23

Non-penalty goals

86

76

npxG

87

83

Shots

98

99

xA

82

5

Progressive passes

96

37

Dribbles Completed

82

43

Percentile among wingers/attacking midfielders in Eredivisie and Premier League. Stats from Opt via FBR Ref.

Clearly, he still needs time to adjust. Yet for all the teething problems, mounting scrutiny and criticism, one thing is consistent: Ten Hag keeps starting him.

Aside from the Manchester derby on January 14, Antony has been in the opening line-up for every Premier League game when fit and available since his debut. Until recently, his appearances generally lasted the 90 minutes. Perhaps his spate of substitutions (he hasn’t completed a match since October 22) are a sign that patience is beginning to wear thin but, for the most part, Antony plays.

That is partly because the rest of United’s wingers are right-footed and prefer to play on the left.

Marcus Rashford is in the form of his career playing that role, Alejandro Garnacho likewise prefers to cut in off that flank, as it does Jadon Sancho. Anthony Elanga also looks more comfortable on the left than right.

Yet it is also because Ten Hag believes in Antony.

And there is reason to believe that, as United develop under Ten Hag, so too will his most expensive signing. At Ajax, much of Antony’s good work was helped by support from Noussair Mazraoui, a partnership full of underlapping runs and combinations inside the opposition penalty area.

Diogo Dalot is enjoying a good season and Aaron Wan-Bissaka has deputised well, but right-back is a position that United know needs to be strengthened.

In the Netherlands, Antony was also playing in a side who dominated possession, averaging more than two-thirds of the ball on their way to winning the title last season. By contrast, United’s average share of possession in the 2022-23 Premier League is 52 per cent. This is more of a counter-attacking team than Ten Hag’s Ajax, largely out of necessity.

As United develop under the Dutchman, potentially moving closer to the Ajax style, that can only help Antony.

Granted, even that may not be enough to justify his price tag.

Whatever currency the total package is quoted in — whether €100million, £87.8million or $108.7million — it is a lot of money. It is probably too much. It will certainly feel like too much if, come the summer, United are left searching for spare change down the back of the settee.

But, right now, they are clearly benefitting on the pitch from their decision to back a manager they believe in.

If you trust in Ten Hag, there is reason to trust in a player he was determined to bring to Old Trafford with him. Whether Antony’s debut year at United is deemed a success or not, it will be a year spent adapting and integrating to a new league under the guidance of a manager who has faith in his ability.

That, ultimately, is what United paid extra for.

(Top photo: Naomi Baker via Getty Images)

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