Antony was Erik ten Hag’s flagship recruit in his first summer at Manchester United, chasing him for months and reportedly paying £85 million. His future at the club now looks bleak.

For a long time, Erik ten Hag was understandably criticised for having an apparent blind spot with Antony, retaining faith in the Brazilian even if his performances hardly justified it. But no longer is that the case, with these past few days outlining his status on the periphery at Old Trafford.

With Rasmus Højlund ruled out for a few weeks due to injury, there was an acceptance that it probably meant Antony would be restored to the starting XI having lost his place. But rumours of a surprise first Premier League start for 19-year-old England Under-20 winger Omari Forson began to circulate ahead of the visit of Fulham on Saturday, and those mutterings turned out to be accurate.

It means by the time of United’s next Premier League match, away to Manchester City in this weekend’s derby, more than two months will have passed since Antony last started a top-flight match; a player who cost a reported £85 million in 2022 will have gone nine weeks without a league start despite being available the whole time.

Antony did come on in the unimpressive 2-1 defeat to Marco Silva’s side on Saturday, but the timing of his introduction felt more like Ten Hag making a point to the player than it did a genuine attempt to change the game.

It was during the last moments of nine minutes of second-half stoppage time that Antony emerged from the bench, managing a single touch in just under 120 seconds on the pitch, which combined with the ignominy of seeing several others play in the position he was signed to occupy.

Forson started the game on the right wing, Amad Diallo came on for him in the second half, and Alejandro Garnacho – moved to the left because Marcus Rashford was deputising for Højlund – had previously made that position his own over the past couple of months after a match-winning performance against Aston Villa on Boxing Day.

“It was nothing to do with fitness,” Ten Hag said of Antony’s lack of game time recently. “[Antony] is fit but we have many options on the right side where we lack in other positions due to injuries. The form Antony is in we all have seen and he has to step up. I see it in training, but also Omari and Amad Diallo and Garnacho deserve to play.”

United’s fourth-choice right winger is now someone who cost them £85m less than two years ago; it really is both a damning indictment of the club’s recruitment record and of Antony’s performances.

Man Utd squad depth

In January, Ten Hag suggested Antony’s “off-field issues” were the root cause. The player was given time off in September after being subject to accusations of violence against three women. He denied the allegations on Brazilian TV and hasn’t been charged in relation to any of the claims, though a report in The Guardian last month outlined police investigations were still ongoing in Brazil and the UK.

Antony returned to the team in October and Ten Hag thinks he’s not been the same since. We’re not here to speculate about very serious accusations – which make football matters appear very trivial by comparison – nor the impact of them, but most would agree Antony’s form was underwhelming long before the allegations first came to light in June.

To understand what Antony should be offering to United, we have to look back on his time with Ten Hag at Ajax. When the manager was discussing the player’s disappointing form last month, he outlined what he’d previously considered Antony’s core strengths.

“His effectiveness, his end product was very high [at Ajax]. Also in the Champions League, [his level was] very high,” Ten Hag explained. “So, I’m sure he’s capable of doing this by bringing key actions, key passes, the crosses, the finishing. His end product in Ajax was very high; he should return to those levels.”

Across two seasons at Ajax, Antony recorded 46 goal involvements in 82 games; that’s better than one in two, which is a reasonably impressive record when taken at face value. It’s also worth noting that none of his 25 goals for the club were penalties, and all but two of his 21 assists were from open play.

Antony Ajax goal involvements

He was certainly someone who regularly made telling contributions and was a threat in attack, with his 0.64 expected goals (xG) + expected assists (xA) per 90 across all competitions in 2021-22 good enough for 10th among all Eredivisie players (minimum 900 minutes played). Similarly, his average of 0.78 non-penalty goals + open-play assists per 90 was almost identical to that of Cody Gakpo (0.77) that season and bettered by only five players from the Eredivisie.

Antony also recorded the sixth most crosses on a per-90-minute basis (4.2) among the same players, and only AZ’s Zakaria Aboukhlal (4.5) took shots more often than the Brazilian (4.1). Obviously having shots isn’t a measure of quality in itself, but the frequency of Antony’s attempts and crosses does provide an indication of how busy he was in the final third.

In fact, no Eredivisie player was involved in more open-play attacking sequences per 90 across all competitions in 2021-22 (min. 900 mins) than his 8.1, further highlighting just how active Antony was.

Antony sequence involvement Ajax 2021-22 season

His ball carrying was an asset to Ajax as well, with only four players (min. 900 minutes, excluding defenders) in the Eredivisie in 2021-22 travelling further with the ball per 90 minutes than Antony (219.9 metres). Among the same group, he also ranked fifth for chance-creating carries (carries ending with a shot or chance created) per 90 (2.1).

Antony chance-creating carries Ajax

So, in terms of “end product”, as Ten Hag brought up, it is fair to say Antony was fairly influential at Ajax and offered plenty as both a goal threat and creative presence, even if his 1.7 chances created every 90 minutes wasn’t exactly outstanding.

Of course, Antony made a lightning start to life at Old Trafford, scoring in each of his first three Premier League games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Everton, helping United to a couple of wins in the process. But since that fruitful run, he’s scored once in 42 top-flight games.

He’s posted that return despite only Rashford (3.6) averaging more shots per game than him (3.5) among United players last season, and Antony’s output in terms of creating for others didn’t really pick up the slack. In all competitions, he averaged 0.09 assists per 90 last season, so roughly one every 11 matches. That’s decreased to 0.07 assists per 90 in 2023-24.

In fairness to him, both figures come from 0.16 xA, suggesting he’s been let down somewhat by the finishing of his teammates, but that’s still not a remarkable output when you consider Jadon Sancho recorded 0.24 per 90 in 2022-23 despite also generally falling short of expectations in a season that required him to take time away.

Antony’s rate of chance creation per game has remained fairly steady, albeit underwhelming (1.44 in 2022-23, 1.48 in 2023-24), but he’s definitely scaled back with respect to his shooting, tallying 2.35 per 90 on average this term. It’s entirely plausible that’s deliberate; perhaps his wastefulness last season was identified as an area for considerable improvement, with coaches potentially looking to develop his decision making in the final third.

Antony goal involements Man Utd

Similarly, his 1.8 shot-ending carries per 90 last term was the fourth most in the Premier League (min. 900 minutes) in 2022-23, but he’s tumbled way down the rankings this season (0.9).

So, it’s difficult to see where gains have been made with him in terms of attacking efficiency. He hasn’t improved as a creative outlet and is now shooting less often as well; say what you want about his propensity to go for goal, but that was undoubtedly one of the ways he was most effective at Ajax.

However, it could just be that he’s too predictable. Premier League defences quickly became wise to how he plays and perhaps he’s just not capable of adapting. We can also see by looking at his touch zone maps shows how much less he sees of the ball at United than he did with Ajax; that’s the case across the pitch but the difference is most significant in the final third.

Antony touches 2021-22 Ajax all competitions
Antony touches Man Utd all competitions

Ajax were obviously a possession-dominant team in most games they played, recording 65.4% of the ball on average across all competitions in Antony’s last season there. United’s was 55.6% last season and 52.0% this term, so clearly that has an impact.

One area where he can’t be faulted is his defensive work rate. The Opta Radar below shows how he ranks in the 99th percentile among forwards in the Premier League this season (min. 500 minutes played) for possession regains and in the 96th percentile for defensive actions. Considering United’s desire to press high, these are obviously important traits.

But is that enough for a winger at Manchester United? We also have to consider that there have been many players fail to make the grade in the Premier League after excelling in the Eredivisie. The jump in standard can be too much for some players, and at the moment, Antony looks more likely to fall into that category regardless of his work rate.

“Antony, I backed him for a long time, I know his abilities. When he plays as I know from the past, he’s unstoppable,” Ten Hag said on Tuesday ahead of this week’s FA Cup clash with Nottingham Forest. But it now seems far more probable he’ll be written off as an expensive transfer mistake than be given the time to prove his manager right.

A report in the Manchester Evening News on Monday claimed United will listen to offers for him this summer as the new suits in charge look to raise funds for another rebuild.

Having provided so little return on investment since joining from Ajax and now seemingly behind three players in the pecking order, it’s difficult to see a long-term future at Old Trafford for Antony, who’s now been told he has to “wait for his chance”.

If he does remain, it’ll probably be because of financial reasons, which will say more about the slapdash nature of the Glazer regime’s recruitment policies than it will about Antony earning the right to prove himself.

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