Manchester United appear to be edging closer to making their first signing of the Erik ten Hag era and the target is an appropriate one for the Dutch manager.
Ten Hag brought Antony to Ajax and it now seems as though he will oversee his arrival at Old Trafford. United officials have reportedly flown to Amsterdam to push forward a £40million transfer for the winger, who has attracted plenty of transfer interest over the past few months.
The transfer links are no surprise. Antony enjoyed a productive 2021/22 season for Ajax, returning 12 goals and eight assists in 33 appearances to help Ten Hag sign off with an Eredivisie title. The 22-year-old has contributed an impressive 22 goals and 20 assists in 78 appearances for Ajax altogether since joining from Sao Paulo two years ago.
It now looks as though he could be on his way to Manchester United. Here is everything United fans need to know about Antony.
Following in Moura’s footsteps
Born Antony Matheus dos Santos in Osasco, a suburb of Sao Paulo in Brazil, in February 2000, Antony began his football journey as a 10-year-old in the academy of the city’s famous club. Despite his prodigious talent, his progression wasn’t plain sailing. He says he was on the verge of being released by Sao Paulo on three occasions and, unlike many Brazilian wonderkids, it took until he was 18 for a first-team debut to come.
Although he didn’t hit the big time until adulthood, he was forced to grow up fast. By the time he was 19 he had a young son and had written a book, entitled ‘From Overcoming a Real Dream’, about his fight to make it at Sao Paulo.
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Like many young footballers from Sao Paulo, Antony looked up to Lucas Moura, who is viewed as an inspiration, having come through the club’s academy to make it in Europe at a young age. Moura was very supportive of Antony and describes him as a “good friend” in the foreword he contributed to his book.
After making his senior debut in November 2018, Antony told Gazeta Esportiva : “I received many messages, but I received from a guy that his humility is without comment. It’s Lucas Moura, who is an idol in Sao Paulo. He gave me strength, tranquillity. It’s always good to hear from an experienced guy to put into practice in the games. It’s a guy who inspires me a lot, through humility, work. I have to thank him a lot too.”
Making his mark
Antony agreed to join Ajax in February 2020. He was signed by the Dutch giants as a replacement for Hakim Ziyech, after the Moroccan winger agreed to join Chelsea in a £33m deal. Ajax had been scouting Antony for some time and managed to beat Borussia Dortmund and others to his signing.
Ajax paid Sao Paulo an initial fee of £13m, which could rise to £18.2m through performance-related add-ons, and handed Antony a five-year contract. He arrived in July 2020 and didn’t take long to make an impression, managing to take David Neres’ place in Ten Hag’s side during the 2020/21 season.
Erwin Spek/Getty Images)
Upon his arrival, Ajax director of football Marc Overmars warned fans “we will have to be patient” with the youngster. He made a mockery of that prediction, finishing his debut season with nine goals and eight assists in 32 Eredivisie appearances.
He was soon linked with Bayern Munich and Liverpool, leading Overmars to issue a hands-off warning. “He has only been playing with us for one season and can still grow a lot,” he said last summer. “Players who have played with us for three, four or five years are ready for the next step. In Antony’s case, we won’t let him go.”
Learning from Ten Hag
Antony’s development at Ajax owes a lot to Ten Hag, who took him under his wing and coached him to play in his preferred style. The Ajax side Antony has played in for the past two seasons tended to line up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation which has emphasis on the wingers drifting inside.
Antony is left-footed, but played every single game of last season on the right wing because he is adept at moving inside to link up play and get shots off. Ajax clearly did their homework, because Antony made a perfect replacement for Ziyech, who got his move to Chelsea due to his similar playing style.
Ten Hag has frequently lauded his young winger and admitted in November that his performances were bound to attract outside attention. Appearing as a guest on ESPN’s Good Morning Oranje, Ten Hag said: “From a sporting point of view, it is clear that he is an incredible talent. He is going through an incredibly beautiful development. Especially if we perform in the Champions League, then it is clear that he will come into the spotlight and be interesting for a lot of clubs.”
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Before joining Ajax in 2017, Ten Hag spent two years learning his trade as Bayern Munich’s reserve team boss. Working at the Bavarian giants between 2013 and 2015, he got to see one of the Netherlands’ modern day greats up close: Arjen Robben. After another stellar performance from Antony in a 5-0 win over Fortuna Sittard on December 22, the comparison between the two was put to Ten Hag.
“I find it difficult to compare players because they all have their own identity. But of course he looks a bit like him,” he told ESPN. “I had the pleasure of seeing Robben in Munich for a long time and always enjoyed him immensely. I definitely see some of that in Antony, but as I said: everyone has their own identity. He is a wonderful player with a wonderful dribble and a lot of speed, which he also uses without the ball. That is certainly a step he has taken. It’s good that he’s started scoring.”
The feeling is definitely mutual, with Antony crediting Ten Hag for his guidance over the past few years. “He is a great coach, with an eye for detail,” he told Telegraaf earlier this year. “The team is the most important thing, but every player becomes a better footballer under his guidance and through his training. Since I came he has given me a lot of confidence and believed in what I can do. I am grateful to him for that. I respect him very much.”
‘Behaves like an idiot’
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The last two years have seen Antony on a steep upward trajectory, but there have been a few bumps in the road. One of them came in March and saw Antony go from hero to zero in a matter of minutes – in the eyes of some, anyway.
Ajax had been 2-1 down at home to rivals Feyenoord before goals from Dusan Tadic and Antony completed the comeback. After scoring what proved to be the winning goal in the 87th minute, Antony celebrated wildly, taking off his shirt and jumping onto the advertising hoardings in front of the fans. He was booked and compounded things by picking up a second yellow in the 95th minute to be sent off and earn criticism from Dutch TV pundits.
“Suppose we are in the stands together as a scout for Manchester City or Liverpool… And we are looking at Antony, what do you think we would say when we come back on Monday?” former Netherlands international Rene van der Gijp said on Vandaag Inside at the time. “We will not take that. You don’t see a Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane or Mohamed Salah doing this. Then you can say: he is young, but it can also get crazier.”
Fellow ex-Netherlands international, Wim Kieft agreed. “He is not that young anymore, because he has been doing this for two years. Such a boy cannot be calmed by a coach, in the end,” Kieft said. “Ten Hag will of course never say that Antony behaves like an idiot, but he thinks so. In general, this behaviour is addressed in the locker room, then someone says: hey, what are you doing?”
Answer to United’s problem position?
Last summer United shelled out £73m to sign long-term target Jadon Sancho from Dortmund. A year on and the move is yet to really work out. Injury and the team’s poor form meant Sancho only showed glimpses of his undoubted talent in the 2021/22 season.
United have thrown lots of money at the right-wing position over the past few years, with Facundo Pellistri (£7.65m) and Amad Diallo (£37m) also brought in before being sent out on loan. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Elanga and Mason Greenwood have all filled in on the right-hand side of attack, but it seems that Ten Hag has now found his answer to the problem.
Given the relationship between the two and Antony’s consistent form over the past two years for Ajax, it is hardly surprising that Ten Hag would advocate for his signing this summer. It is also not surprising that Antony would want to follow his former manager.
When Ten Hag’s departure to United was confirmed earlier this year, the Brazilian posted a video message to thank him for his support – and hint at a possible reunion down the road. “I want to wish you all the best at your new club,” he said. “I also want to thank you for everything you taught me. I am thankful [for] all the opportunities and learning every day. Know that I will always stand with you if you need me.”
It now seems as though Ten Hag is ready to take him up on that offer.