Erik ten Hag was considering the problems of a winger who cost Manchester United a fortune. “He caused them, so he has to sort them out,” he said. He was not discussing Jadon Sancho, exiled first to train with the Under-18s and now on loan to Borussia Dortmund with a perfunctory message from the United manager. “I hope he is doing well. I wish him the best of good luck,” Ten Hag said.
Instead, he was pondering the plight of another winger with no goals and assists for United this season. Antony has played 21 times to Sancho’s three August appearances, but with the same end product; or lack of it.
His issues have been different. And while Ten Hag was not suggesting the Brazilian is guilty of assaulting three women, including his former girlfriend, as they have claimed, he believes the accusations in Antony’s personal life account for the slump in his professional fortunes. His season has included a five-game autumnal leave of absence while he addressed the allegations, which he denies. Antony has voluntarily been interviewed by police in both Sao Paulo and Manchester. So far, he has not been charged by either, though inquiries remain ongoing.
They are matters of more importance than ineffectual displays on the right wing, but since his return to first-team duty, Antony has been wretched. “I can explain,” Ten Hag said. “I think it’s very simple. I think his off-field issues stop him playing. They have had an impact on him, definitely, so he has to deal with that. He caused them, so he has to sort them out. We will give him all the support but he has to do better.”
That feels an understatement, with Antony’s goal drought now stretching back 31 games, with his 65-match United career having produced just three assists. Some 13 players have scored for United this season and 16 have registered at least one assist. Antony ranks on neither list. The spectacular start to his Old Trafford career, with goals in his first three league games, including a wonderful strike against Arsenal, proved a false dawn. Thereafter, there was a winner against Barcelona last season but too often he has looked too predictable, forever trying to cut in and shoot on his left foot, and not creative enough.
“First year he was okay, in the pre-season he was very okay, [in the] first four games he was very good,” Ten Hag countered. “For instance, I’ve seen the [August] game against Spurs back and he played a very good game over there, but from the moment he was out and then he came back, he didn’t deliver the performance we should expect from him.”
The alternative verdict is that Antony has delivered the performances most others have come to expect from him, and therein lies a problem: Now expectations are that low. Certainly the most incisive and entertaining South American left-footer United have deployed on the right wing this season has been Alejandro Garnacho, not the £85m man.
If his barren season is an extreme example, there were already grounds to think that Antony scores and makes too few goals. In his last season in the Netherlands, Ricky van Wolfswinkel mustered twice as many of each in the Eredivisie, with Antony’s tallies an underwhelming eight and four respectively. Ten Hag took solace from his 2021/22 Champions League campaign for Ajax, yielding two goals and four assists.
“You mention Ajax. I look back there, so his effectiveness and his end product was very high there, and also in the Champions League very high,” he said. “So, I am sure he’s capable of doing this, bringing key actions, key passes, the crosses, the finishing. His end product in Ajax was very high and he should return to that level, but Premier League is more difficult and he’s capable of doing that.”
But is he? There are reasons to be sceptical. Antony was only named in the Eredivisie’s team of the month once in his final season in the Netherlands. When United were beaten by West Ham in December, the starring display came from Mohammed Kudus; given the Ghanaian’s greater impact this season, it prompted the suggestion United had signed the wrong Ajax winger.
Or, indeed, the wrong player from the Netherlands. Last January, Liverpool bought Cody Gakpo, a forward Ten Hag admired. United lacked the funds to compete after their summer 2022 spending. But that was when they had resolved not to spend more than €60m on Antony and yet paid €100m. Ever since then, when they have lacked the budget to buy players, the exorbitant cost of Antony is a factor. At £85m, he is the second most expensive signing in their history; in terms of value for money, arguably the worst.
And he is front and centre in the case against Ten Hag. The Dutchman’s transfer record has come in for criticism now. It was different last season. “Everyone was saying how great Licha [Lisandro] Martinez was doing, everyone was telling me Christian Eriksen was a top signing, Tyrell Malacia, very smart,” he insisted. “Then we had Antony, who was doing okay. Casemiro? Brilliant, everyone was saying last season. So we must judge them in the moment.”
Even in that defence, it was notable that Ten Hag did not claim appraisals of Antony went beyond “okay”. A year on, even the most generous would not go that far. And if off-field worries have contributed to Antony’s malaise, there are twin reasons for questioning Ten Hag’s judgement: for thinking Antony was good enough for United at all, and for paying £85m for him.