Antony will bring Manchester United goals, trickery and defensive intensity

Four bids and €100 million (£86.5m; $100m) later and Antony is finally a Manchester United player.

The Athletic reported on August 28 that United and Ajax had finally settled on a fee for the Brazilian winger — a guaranteed €95m (2.7 per cent of which will go to Antony’s former club Sao Paulo as a solidarity payment), with a further €5m in add – once certain criteria are met — and the deal was confirmed on deadline day. Anthony has signed a contract until 2027, with the option of an additional year.

It was a long and protracted transfer to get over the line, but why did United go to so much effort to reunite Erik ten Hag with his former Ajax winger? It is a move that makes Antony the most expensive outgoing in Eredivise history and raises several tactical questions.

Here’s what the manager has planned for his new signing…


What is Antony?

Purchased by Ajax in February 2020, Antony was Ten Hag’s attempt to replace the departing Hakim Ziyech in his “second era” of Ajax. The winger would operate a little differently compared to his predecessor due to adjustments the manager had made to the side since their 2018-19 Champions League semi-final run.

The Ajax of 2020-21 and 2021-22 with Antony relied less on the “overload one flank and then switch” attacking moves of 2018-19. Ryan Gravenberch succeeded Frenkie de Jong, giving the team more of an attacking threat in the attacking third. Sebastien Haller offered more of an aerial threat up front. There were more layers to how these squads played.

Both Ziyech and Antony are capable dribblers who like to cut inside and shoot on goal, but Antony would start attacking moves from a wider position compared to the Moroccan. Right-back Noussair Mazraoui became more of an underlapping full-back working behind Antony, who is more of an on-ball creator, rather than an outright goal threat like Ziyech, who shoots a lot more.

We can get a better grasp of his style of play by using smarterscout data, which gives players a rating from 0-99, relating to either how often they perform a given action compared with others in their position (such as ball recoveries and interceptions) , or how effective they are (such as how well they progress the ball upfield).

Here’s what the above chart is telling us:

  • Antony is a dynamic goalscorer and goal creator rather than an orthodox “get to the byline and cross” right winger. While he is good at dribbling, for much of last season he progressed the ball with passes upfield (progressive passing, 64 out of 99) rather than ball carries (carry and dribble volume, 34 out of 99).
  • He keeps the ball very well (ball retention ability, 83 out of 99), and is good at sensible team build-up with shorter passes (link-up play volume, 66 out of 99). Antony’s close control when dribbling will impress United fans this season. He is someone able to weave his way out of fraught situations.
  • He doesn’t shirk his defensive duties. His defending intensity (73 out of 99) shows he is active in getting close to his man when required. The high volume of recoveries and interceptions he makes (81 out of 99) also suggests he doesn’t run after the man in possession like a headless chicken; there is a rhyme and reason to his pressing attempts.

Antony was so effective for Ajax last season (eight goals and four assists in 23 Eredivisie appearances) in part because Ten Hag had created a side that controlled the ball well and could sustain pressure on opponents. The arrivals of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen should help United in that endeavour, but Antony’s signing raises questions as well as answers.


What will he bring to United’s attack?

An assist against FC Emmen in November 2020 is a good example of what we can expect from Antony. The move starts with Ajax right-back Mazraoui passing down the flank. Antony, who is holding a narrow position, runs out wide to seize the ball…

Before turning…

And standing up his defender.

The Ajax winger has the burst of pace to beat his man…

… before whipping in a cross with his left foot.

The cross is then converted by the centre-forward Lassina Traore.

Ajax would go on to win the game 5-0 and claim a league and cup double that season. Antony finished the campaign with nine goals and eight assists in the league (making 32 appearances).

You can watch all of his goals and assists on YouTube for an idea of ​​Antony’s repeated motions — he likes to face up his opponent then uses a skill move to beat him.

He developed his game in the 2021-22 season, which we can examine in the image below, mapping all of the chances he created with his ball carries.

The red lines indicate ball carries that would result in a shot on goal. Look at how many see him start from a wide position before cutting inside and shooting just outside the penalty area. Most of these runs would be accompanied by an overlapping run from right-back Mazraoui.

The yellow lines indicate ball carries that resulted in a pass from Antony. Note the wider starting position, and how the passes are either crosses delivered to the near post or pullbacks to one of Ajax’s many attackers. A number of these runs would be accompanied by an underlapping run from Mazraoui.

If you’re worried Antony won’t be able to make the jump from the Dutch league to the Premier League, take a look at his created chances in the Champions League last season. Antony is still successful in getting these passes off. Try to imagine Cristiano Ronaldo or Anthony Martial getting on the end of them.

Antony is a solid rather than a spectacular goalscorer.

A look at his shot map from last season gives evidence of a man fond of a long-range and low-quality effort from outside the penalty area. He does appear capable of getting closer to the goal for shots but often attempts to shoot through a crowd of bodies, rather than take his time and work around them like Jadon Sancho.


What does his arrival mean for United’s attacking hierarchy?

The vast majority of his appearances for Ajax under Ten Hag came with him playing as the right winger. Factor in the premium transfer price, and it is reasonable to assume Antony will be United’s starting right winger.

That will have a number of ramifications for players around him. Sancho — who was bought to be the solution to United’s right-sided woes — will likely become United’s starting left winger, as we saw against Southampton. Sancho played the majority of his matches last season on the left and is more of an outright goal threat than goal creator when working on that flank.

Ten Hag’s Ajax sides often used a right-footed player on the left and a left-footer on the right: Sancho and Antony would continue his preference for inverted goal creators who can cause overloads and multi-faceted attacking moves.

Sancho’s move to the left would mean Marcus Rashford could become a bench option for the left wing or centre-forward positions. Rashford’s best performances as a No 9 come when he plays ahead of two (or more) on-ball creators. Antony’s arrival could make this a more feasible option in-game where one of Martial or Ronaldo is rested.

Where United beat Liverpool with the following starting XI…

… they could now start Premier League games looking like this…

… with this as an option for Europa League and domestic cup outings…

There’s just one more thing to discuss before we go…


You’ve mentioned Mazraoui a lot. Will Antony be OK playing with Dalot at right-back?

Maybe. Maybe swimming.

United will probably need another right-back in order to get the most out of Antony, Sancho, or indeed any other right-sided attacker.

Dalot is a curious player who can stray into “Jack of all Trades, Master of None” territory. Sancho is best on the right when playing in front of a right-back who overlaps, where Antony prefers his full-back to underlap. Dalot has displayed some competence at both, but the intensity of his run and quality of his final ball leaves a little to be desired.

Perhaps Antony’s style of play will steer Dalot to better focus his attacking game and become more of an underlapping right-back going forward. Perhaps Dalot’s passing ability can see Antony resort to fewer long-range shots and work closer in the penalty area.

All in all, Antony’s arrival will bring another attacking tool to Ten Hag’s squad. He is young enough and talented enough to be a key member of United’s (hoped) revival and the years beyond it.

(Top photo: Manchester United)

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