“For sure, we hope he will be the next star of Ajax.” It was July 2020 and Erik ten Hag, Ajax’s manager at the time, was introducing Antony, the club’s new £20m signing from Sao Paulo.
“We at Ajax are always trying to strive for the top,” added Ten Hag, “so I expect he will do his best to reach that level of expectation. The rest, we will see in the future.”
Ten Hag was right to expect big things of Antony – the Brazilian, only 19 when he agreed his move to Amsterdam, swiftly established himself as one of Ajax’s key players – but even he could not have predicted he might one day take him to Manchester United too.
Antony, now 22, has scored 25 goals in 82 appearances for Ajax, breaking into the Brazil squad in the process. United are willing to pay a fee in the region of £80m which has raised eyebrows. Is he really worth it?
How Ten Hag shaped him
For Ten Hag, a coach who knows Antony like few others, the answer is yes.
“As soon as Ten Hag went to Old Trafford, I thought, ‘he’s going to take Antony with him’, because Ten Hag has done such a wonderful job developing this player,” said South American football expert Tim Vickery on Sky Sports News.
Antony was “talented but very raw” when he arrived at Ajax two years ago, according to Vickery, a view that was shared by the coaches in charge of Brazil’s U23 team at the time.
“He played for Brazil at U23 level, which is a big deal here, to qualify for the Olympics,” Vickery added.
“They had the vital game, the last game of the campaign, just before the pandemic at the start of 2020. They had to beat Argentina.
“Antony had been first choice throughout the campaign and for the first time, they dropped him. Why? Because he was playing winger, left footed, high on the right, and every time, he was slowing them down.
“He was picking up the ball and cutting back in onto his stronger foot and he would take away the momentum of the attacks. You were thinking at this point: raw.
“But Ten Hag got him and developed him into a quick little winger who can play on either flank, whose decision-making is greatly improved and who can also work back and put in a bit of a shift.
“So, as soon as Ten Hag went to Manchester United, I thought, well, Antony is his man.”
Antony soon stepped up from Brazil’s U23s to their senior side, scoring twice in nine appearances under manager Tite, who describes him as a player with “similar technical characteristics” to Neymar, but his numbers for Ajax do not immediately stand out.
The winger has not reached double figures for goals scored in either of his two Eredivisie campaigns, his overall total of 18 placing him behind 18 other players in the division. He ranks outside the top 10 for both shots on goal and chances created in the same timeframe.
Still, though, there was enough there for Ten Hag to talk up his “incredibly beautiful development” last season. His progress most clearly apparent on the Champions League stage.
Antony was instrumental in Ajax reaching the knockout stages for only the second time in the last 16 seasons last year, twice tormenting Borussia Dortmund in the group stage and scoring two goals and providing four assists in seven appearances overall.
Ten Hag always believed in his potential but he has pushed him too.
In March, after Antony helped Ajax claim a 2-0 win over AZ Alkmaar in the semi-final of the Dutch Cup, the Dutchman was critical of his performance, warning him against showboating in future.
“He must focus on football,” said Ten Hag. “He was a total threat, but he has to convert that into returns and not worry about frills or flourishes. He has to play more effectively, because he had chances to make the last pass.
“It was clear that he was very dangerous and on the one hand I enjoyed him, his speed, his pressure, the threat of his dribbles, but he could also have got more out of his play.”
Another player might have felt those comments were harsh in the context of a 2-0 victory but Antony evidently sees the value of Ten Hag’s demandingness.
“Every player under his guidance becomes a better footballer through his training,” he told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf.
“Since my arrival, he has given me a lot of confidence and believed in what I can do. I am grateful for that. I respect him very much.”
Why the fee is so high
Ten Hag will be confident of continuing to improve Antony should he make the move to Old Trafford but United will have to pay a premium if they are to make it happen.
Having already paid £56.7m for Antony’s former Ajax team-mate Lisandro Martinez, two years his senior at 24, the Dutch club can justifiably expect an even bigger fee for a player under contract until 2027.
“The problem they have got is a financial one,” added Vickery. “The benchmark is that they have already gone to Ajax and taken Lisandro Martinez, and paid a lot of money for him.
“Now, Antony is a younger player, a more glamorous player, so you can hardly go back to Ajax and say, ‘we bought Lisandro Martinez for £60m, can we have Antony for less?’
“That’s not going to happen. So, if United are going to get him, they are going to have to spend a lot of money on him.”
The problem they have got is a financial one. The benchmark is that they have already gone to Ajax and taken Lisandro Martinez, and paid a lot of money for him.
Martinez is not the only key player already sold by Ajax this summer, either. They have also allowed striker Sebastien Haller to join Borussia Dortmund for roughly £28m, while midfielder Ryan Gravenberch moved to Bayern Munich for £17m before that.
Throw in the sales of Perr Schuurs to Torino (£8m) and Nicolas Tagliafico to Lyon (£3.8m) and Ajax have received in excess of £100m in transfer fees, a figure which ensures there is little financial need to cash in on Antony too.
Instead, they can increase their asking price knowing Manchester United – and their new manager in particular – have the will and the resources to make the deal happen at an inflated price.
Where he fits in at Man Utd
Antony can play on either flank. His versatility is undoubtedly part of the appeal to Ten Hag and United. But he is most comfortable on the right, where he tends to drift inside and make use of his stronger left foot.
Most of his shots tend to come from that side and he has a habit of creating chances from there too, lifting diagonal crosses into the box from the ‘half-space’ between the wing and the centre of the pitch.
United are already reasonably well-stocked in the wide positions, but Marcus Rashford prefers to operate on the left, while Jadon Sancho, who has featured on the right in each of their three Premier league games this season, is adept at playing on that side. The same is true of the younger Anthony Elanga.
With Rashford and Anthony Martial also capable of playing as central strikers, if indeed Ten Hag is going to continue to overlook Cristiano Ronaldo following Monday’s win over Liverpool, there is therefore a potential opening for Antony on the right of Ten Hag’s attack.
There are reasons to believe he could fit in stylistically as well as positionally.
Like Martinez, his former team-mate in Amsterdam, Antony already has a comprehensive understanding of Ten Hag’s tactical approach and preferred system.
He has attributes suited to Manchester United’s counter-attacking identity too. With his speed and directness, it is not difficult to imagine Antony carrying out a similar role to those fulfilled by Rahsford and Sancho during Monday’s exhilarating win over Liverpool.
“In that great tradition of wing play that Old Trafford has, you could really imagine the fans loving what Antony can supply because the talent is there and Ten Hag has done really well to develop it,” added Vickery.
Antony offers industry out of possession too. Ten Hag demands high pressing from his attacking players and Antony was key to that at Ajax. In fact, across his time in the Eredivisie, only five players won possession in the final third more times than him.
It is just another reason why his former manager is now determined to take him to Manchester, just as he did to Amsterdam from Sao Paulo two years ago.
The fee ensures the pressure to live up to expectations will be even higher than it was at Ajax. Ten Hag will back him to deliver for him again.