There were two moments against Charlton Athletic in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup quarterfinal that summed up Antony’s time at Manchester United so far.
The first came midway through the first half: he collected a pass from Fred, took two touches, and whipped the ball into the goal’s far corner with his left foot, putting Man United up 1-0.
The second came moments later when he had the chance to help make it 2-0: instead of taking the opportunity to cross the ball into the penalty area with his right foot, he decided to check back and go backwards. Momentum lost and time for United to start again.
A little over four months since Antony arrived at Old Trafford, the debate about the Brazilian winger has started.
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United might not have beaten Charlton, an eventual 3-0 win, had it not been for his spectacular intervention in the 21st minute, a superb individual goal was the difference between the teams until Marcus Rashford scored twice in stoppage time. But the groans from some supporters that greeted each backwards pass whenever Antony appeared uncomfortable on his right foot suggested that United might have been out of sight earlier had Antony made more of the good positions he got into.
It’s still very early in Antony’s United career but so far, at the very least, he’s splitting opinion.
It won’t have come as a shock to manager Erik ten Hag that Antony is so one-footed after spending two-and-a-half years together at Ajax, but it has surprised some fans that United were willing to spend €100 million on a player with such an obvious limitation.
It’s the eye-popping transfer fee — the 13th-largest reported fee for a player — that frames a lot of the arguments about Antony, despite that number something he could do nothing about.
He told Ajax in January he wanted to leave in the summer, and United announced themselves very early on as a potential destination. Sources have told ESPN that he was on United’s radar since his breakthrough at Sao Paulo and interest stepped up when Ten Hag was appointed manager.
Ajax initially quoted around €60 million, which was deemed too high, and by the time Ten Hag was pushing the issue later in the window, Ajax had already made deals to move on six players — including Lisandro Martinez to United — and were in no hurry to do a deal. But the closer it got to the deadline, the more Antony began to agitate for a move and, in the end, Ajax called Man United football director John Murtough to say they were ready to talk.
The agreement struck was for €95m in staggered payments and another €5m in performance-based bonus, making Antony the fourth-most expensive player signed by a British club behind Jack Grealish, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. If the fee had been lower, perhaps the scrutiny on Antony’s early performances would not have been so intense.
United accept privately they overpaid, but insist they had their reasons.
Firstly, there weren’t many other options in that position, and while Martinez was one of five left-footed centre-backs they looked at, only three forwards — including Antony — made the shortlist. Secondly, Murtough and the recruitment team were impressed with his desire to join United and, third, their monitoring of the transfer market suggested a number of Europe’s top clubs would be looking for a similar player in 2023, which would only hike up the price even further.
One United source told ESPN: “We’ve paid for the player we think he can become, not the one he is now.”
United are banking on Antony to improve and, despite five goals in 16 appearances to start his career in England, Ten Hag has been keen to stress he’s not the finished article. At 22, he’s got time on his side.
“He is a young player we have to develop, but he has to develop himself,” Ten Hag said after Antony scored in a 2-1 win over Everton in October. “We have to expect more from him. He needs challenges. That’s why he came to the Premier League. He will step up. In the first weeks, he’s scored goals, he did good stuff, but also I see a lot of room for improvement in his game.”
Developing his weaker foot is an obvious starting point.
ANTONY WITH A BEAUTY FOR MANCHESTER UNITED! 😱 pic.twitter.com/qYq0bGACp1
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 10, 2023
Arjen Robben made a career out of cutting in off the right side to score with his left, and Charlton manager Dean Holden admitted after the game on Tuesday that even though his defenders were briefed about shepherding Antony “down the outside” they were still powerless to stop what he described as a “world class finish.”
Antonio Valencia made more than 300 appearances for United and won two Premier League titles without ever really using his left foot, but Antony might find the pitch opens up the more confident he gets with his right.
So far in the Premier League, Antony has only had five successful take-ons and is yet to record an assist or create a so-called “big chance,” which is defined as a situation where a player would usually be expected to score. He might argue, however, that it doesn’t matter when you’ve scored against Arsenal and Manchester City. Only Marcus Rashford has got more goals for United this season.
Against Charlton, Antony delighted and frustrated the crowd in equal measure, and it’s been the same for much of his season so far. For Ten Hag, the hope is that eventually the good far outweighs the not-so-good and that, over time, €100m looks like money well spent. For now, though, he’d probably settle for another goal against City at Old Trafford on Saturday.