Antony turns Manchester United debut into one-man highlights reel | Premier League

Dance like 70,000 people aren’t watching. Whatever Antony might go on to achieve from here on the fraught, treacherous, potholed path of becoming, for now, Manchester United’s second most expensive signing of all time, we’ll always have minutes 33 to 34 of his full debut, an interlude that was a kind of highlights reel on its own, me-time, a man intent on painting some part of this day a shade of Antony.

First he took possession on the right touchline and performed a kind of freestyle solo, shimmying both ways, waving his foot over the ball like a pavement magician hiding a ball under a cup. It was funny, gratuitous and kind of pointless. But also, not pointless. United would go on to win this game 3-1, helped by two fine second-half finishes from Marcus Rashford and some killer passing from central midfield.

But they were paddling at that stage. They might have gone behind. They needed something. How about a little show? And this is just Antony’s physical presence, the urge to see the game as a series of duels, a theater of feint and flick and snap. If he succeeds he will succeed like this. It will be fun, and cinematic and apparently fearless. This is a useful quality anywhere. Nowhere more so than at Manchester United, a football club that has feasted on the ghosts of its own baroque past for the last decade.

A minute later Antony veered in from the same spot and scored, a fine goal made by the front three working together: Jadon Sancho to Rashford, who produced a nice little delay and a slid pass for Antony, who opened his hips out, leaned to one side like a downhill skier taking a gate, and eased the ball into the far corner.

Finally there was the four-stage celebration, a piece of theater in itself, or rather musical theater, ending with a kind of growling-lion maneuver into the camera. Granit Xhaka tried to remonstrate with him as he walked back, perhaps for celebrating in front of the away fans, but just got a blank look from United’s new No 21, a man buzzing with fight, juice, adrenaline, eyes wild, drinking in the sweetness of the day.

It was that kind of half for Antony, remarkable for its pure bravado as much as anything else. Antony had played two games since March before this. A year ago he was being subbed off at half-time away to PEC Zwolle. It is of course necessary to be careful with praise at this stage. Alexis Sánchez also looked pretty good on his debut. Antony is all potential energy, all snap and shine. But it seemed significant that the goal was only one part of his hour on the pitch. Perhaps the best bit was a minute before his goal, as he took a pass form Diogo Dalot, legs whirring like a cartoon hare, tailed by two defenders, and produced something brilliant from a standing start, a drag-flick between his markers, back to Dalot, whose cross was volleyed wide by Eriksen.

The best bit of that moment was the noise from the crowd, one of those lovely football noises, an involuntary kind of thing, a hiss, a hum, the sound of 20,000 people purring with pleasure. It is a rare skill to be able to generate that kind of response. And Antony is a distinct presence in this. For all the talk of a Hollywood club, when was the last time Manchester United signed a really Hollywood kind of player?

Sancho could still bring it. Cristiano Ronaldo is at the Ronald Reagan end of his leading-man career, ready to start playing the bad guy. Just before half time Antony tried to chip Aaron Ramsdale from 50 yards, drawing a round of polite applause, more for the intent, the vibe, than the execution.

Old Trafford had been a clammy kind of place at kick-off, steaming a little in the dead September heat. Braced by back-to-back wins Erik ten Hag looked good walking out, all jawline, shoulders, casual tailoring, albeit still with those strange Velcro-strap black school shoes.

He was bold, too, starting Antony on the right, and with five attacking players in the XI – none of them his new self-appointed pupil and 37-year old apprentice, the great CR7.

It helped that Antony had Scott McTominay close behind, who, whatever his limits, will always cover the space and double team in defense.

Antony lingered wide early on, then spent some time tracking Gabriel Martinelli the other way. This, not the show, is what will keep him in this Ten Hag team.

Arsenal scored a fine goal, made by Bukayo Saka’s pass and finished by Martinelli, but it was ruled out for a foul by Paul Tierney after a prolonged crouch over his VAR screen.

This was an excellent game too, a meeting of these two teams that felt, for the first time in some time, like it was at the cutting edge of something. Even the bench felt instructive. Lindelöf, Maguire, Ronaldo, Fred, Shaw is the kind of list that pops up on eternally frustrated fan message boards, half a dysfunctional team right there. Only time will tell if this was a genuine step towards something else. But Antony has now entered the building.

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