We probably need to talk about the money first. It’s the 13th most expensive transfer of all time, slotting in between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. It brings Manchester United’s spending this window to about £200m plus potential add-ons, and together with the signings of Tyrell Malacia and Lisandro Martínez means United are responsible for about 48% of the Eredivisie’s entire summer transfer income.
“God decides my future,” Antony said in an interview last week, when he was still an Ajax player. But, you know, an £86m bid from one of the world’s richest clubs doesn’t hurt either.
Simple intuition warns us to be wary. All the red flags are present and correct, given what we know about United, and particularly United in the transfer market, and particularly United in the transfer market in the final week of the window after a bad start to the season. The sense of urgency and panic. The vastly inflated fee for a 22-year-old forward who has never scored more than nine league goals in a season. The fact he was identified not through an exhaustive empirical analysis and scouting process but because the new manager knows him from Ajax.
The mechanics of Antony’s transfer are emblematic of United’s many dysfunctions. The player himself, however: well, this makes a weird kind of sense. Antony may well go straight into the United team for Sunday’s game against Arsenal, and the irony is that he is joining a quite different club to the one that rekindled its efforts to sign him a fortnight ago. Three successive wins have cast the Erik ten Hag project in a subtle new light, and their 1-0 win at Leicester on Thursday night was perhaps the most revealing indication yet that something extremely interesting is brewing.
The big tell was how United moved in possession. Christian Eriksen dropped so deep that he was at times playing as a third centre-half. The full-backs Malacia and Diogo Dalot pushed up high, but not on the flanks. Instead they took up more central positions, almost akin to where a No 8 would operate. It is a trick that Pep Guardiola has often sought to deploy, and it serves a dual purpose. First, if you lose possession, you are better placed to thwart a possible counterattack. Second, it gives your wingers more space to roam and attack. And this, perhaps, is where Antony comes in.
The expectation is that Antony, a left-footer, will slot in on the right, a long-standing problem position for United. He dribbles at speed, cuts inside for the cross or shot, presses with energy and “grin”: an Italian term that Ten Hag loves to use for players with grit, guts, the will to fight and win at all costs. Jadon Sancho, meanwhile, will move to the left. Marcus Rashford can also operate there, or challenge Anthony Martial at centre-forward. Bruno Fernandes can sit behind the front three, although in the longer term Ten Hag may have designs on rehabilitating the career of Donny van de Beek. Hang on. Have we missed anyone out?
Ah, yes. Having tried and failed to leave the club, Ronaldo has found himself on the bench ever since the Brentford game. (It’s also worth remembering that he lost a child five months ago, and has every excuse to be distracted.) And yet the arrival of Antony is perhaps the clearest signal yet that Ten Hag is intending to build a team without him: quick, mobile , unpredictable and with multiple threats from multiple angles.
This in itself is a quietly revolutionary development: junking the club’s star signing from a year ago after a season in which he scored 18 league goals. And it is a measure of the remarkable upheaval that has taken place in the space of just a summer.
This was United’s first-choice starting XI from last season, based on most league starts. De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf, Maguire, Shaw; Fred, McTominay; Greenwood, Fernandes, Sancho; Ronaldo. Only four are still in the side. The entire defense has been replaced. Scott McTominay will make way for Casemiro soon. David de Gea will almost certainly be replaced once a suitable replacement becomes available. Which leaves only Sancho and Fernandes. “I wanted to substitute the entire team,” Ten Hag grumbled after the 4-0 collapse at Brentford. Well, he’s almost there.
This was a process that even Alex Ferguson took years rather than months to implement, seeking out not just winning talents but winning characters, players who would fight for each other, players who could play to a plan. What Ten Hag is attempting here – and this sounds like hyperbole – is one of the most audacious acts of major surgery seen at one of Europe’s top clubs in such a short space of time.
There is no guarantee that it will work. The time for judgment is some way off. All three of United’s recent wins came against teams content to make the run against them.
It remains to be seen how they will cope against teams who sit deep against them, with the grind of Europa League football, how long sidelined players will be content to stay sidelined without kicking up a fuss, how long they can continue to throw good money after bad. It’s an ambitious plan. It’s a flawed plan. It may even be a doomed plan. But it is, at least, a plan.