Antony, Manchester United’s €95million problem – The Athletic

Mark CritchleyMar 12, 2024

It is now more than two months since the second-most expensive player in Manchester United’s history started a Premier League game. It is five weeks shy of a year since he last scored a Premier League goal.

In fact, the only team Antony has either scored or assisted against in his 29 appearances this season are Newport County, who play in the fourth tier of the English game, in the FA Cup.

This is not what United paid an initial €95million (£80.9m/$103.9m at current exchange rates) for, which at the time in August 2022 was enough to make the then 22-year-old winger the 13th most expensive player in history.

Nor was it expected by Erik ten Hag, who encouraged United’s key decision-makers in recruitment to push ahead with a deal with previous employers Ajax during the final days of his first transfer window at the club, not long after losing his opening two games in charge.

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Signing completed, Ten Hag trusted Antony to play as soon as they were reunited in Manchester, and that trust reaped immediate rewards, with the Brazil international scoring three times in his first three league appearances over the next month.

Few expected that run of scoring to last, but few expected Antony would only score another five times in all competitions that season. Yet even as his output dwindled, Ten Hag continued to play him — handing him 44 appearances in that debut campaign, all but five of them as a member of the starting line-up.

Antony was wanted by Ten Hag (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

That is no longer the case.

Antony has been named on the bench in United’s past nine league games, failing to make an appearance in the away wins against Aston Villa and Luton Town. In the other seven, he played just 50 minutes, plus stoppages.

The nadir came in the recent 2-1 defeat against Fulham at Old Trafford when, despite Rasmus Hojlund’s injury opening up a spot in the front three, Antony was overlooked for a place in the team. Ten Hag instead turned to Omari Forson, a 19-year-old academy graduate who made his first and so far only senior start.

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Later, with Fulham leading 1-0, Ten Hag brought on 21-year-old winger Amad Diallo for his second Premier League appearance in almost three years. On his 24th birthday, Antony was eventually introduced in the ninth of 11 added minutes, just after Fulham scored their winner, to deputise at left-back.

Ten Hag has a simple reason for dropping Antony: he has not been playing well enough. Despite arguably being the fiercest champion of Antony’s abilities, even the United manager now concedes that.

That message has been relayed to the player, who sources say has accepted that he has not shown the consistency required to hold down a regular starting place since returning to the club’s Carrington training base following a leave of absence last September.

Earlier that month, Antony’s former partner Gabriela Cavallin alleged in an interview with Brazilian outlet UOL that she had been attacked by him on three separate occasions.

Cavallin claimed Antony had assaulted her in a car on June 1, 2022, while she was pregnant, and threatened to throw her from the vehicle while it was moving, and alleged she was head-butted and punched by him in a Manchester hotel room on January 15 last year, which resulted in a damaged breast implant. She claimed she also sustained a finger injury during an incident on May 8.

Antony has struggled since the allegations (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Antony denied those allegations, and similar ones by two other women — Rayssa de Freitas and Ingrid Lana — made in Brazilian media.

He had travelled to Brazil for international duty, only to be dropped from their squad, when, on September 10, United granted an indefinite period of absence allowing him to remain in Brazil and address the allegations. Antony returned to the UK later that month and, on September 28, voluntarily attended an interview with Greater Manchester Police (GMP). The following day, after almost three weeks away from the club, United announced he would return to Carrington and resume training.

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GMP has confirmed to The Athletic that the investigation into the allegations against Antony remains ongoing.

Antony’s representatives have also said that the Brazilian authorities’ investigation remains active and is awaiting conclusion. Due to this, The Athletic has disabled comments on this article for legal reasons.

The triviality of Antony’s on-pitch performances pales in insignificance compared to the severity of the allegations against him off it, although Ten Hag has drawn a link between the two, suggesting they were the root cause for his lack of form.

“I think his off-field issues stopped him playing,” the United manager said in January. “From the moment he was out and then he came back, he didn’t deliver the performance you should expect from him and he can do so much better.”

Late last month, Ten Hag reiterated that Antony “wasn’t the person like he was before” after returning to the squad. “(The allegations) did something with his belief,” he said. “One of the big skills from Antony is that he’s very brave, so he has to find that back and it’s up to him.”

That view is shared by those close to the player, who add that Ten Hag and United as a club have supported Antony since his return to training and shown an understanding that his performances will be affected by the ongoing police investigations.

Yet Antony’s underwhelming play predates these allegations against him coming to light.

It was telling that Ten Hag’s recent defence of him as “unstoppable” on his day did not predominantly focus on his time at United. The Dutchman was instead harking back to their days together at Ajax, where Antony scored 24 goals and registered 22 assists in 82 appearances in his two seasons following a 2020 move from boyhood club Sao Paulo back home, compared to his United record of nine and four in 73.

A drop-off was to be expected from a player transitioning from the Eredivisie to the more demanding Premier League, but his attacking output is down across the board, in just about every relevant category for a player tasked to score and create, to the level of a below-average top-flight winger.

Antony – Ajax vs Manchester United (p90)

2021-22 2022-23 2023-24
Goals 0.42 0.20 0.00
Non-penalty expected goals 0.37 0.33 0.14
Shots 4.12 3.60 2.48
Expected assists 0.23 0.14 0.20
Take-ons 2.19 1.50 1.62
Touches in penalty area 5.69 4.25 3.90

When a 20-year-old Antony arrived at Ajax, Ten Hag and his coaching staff outlined what was expected of him in his role cutting in from the right, but also concluded this was a player who should not be overloaded with tactical instructions. “To a large degree, this kind of player has to figure things out and feel freedom on the pitch,” Ten Hag told Maarten Meijer, his biographer.

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Yet if Antony has excelled at any aspects of play in Ten Hag’s system at United, they have tended to be when out of possession, as a committed presser. Going into this weekend’s round of matches, he lead the way among Premier League players to play more than a quarter of available top-flight minutes this season for winning possession in the final third, taking the ball away high up the pitch 1.71 times per 90 minutes.

Antony’s high ball wins

Player Possession Won Final 1/3
Antony 1.71
Conor Gallagher 1.42
Neal Maupay 1.30
Luca Koleosho 1.28
Bukayo Saka 1.28

That is partly why, despite dropping Antony, Ten Hag is still in his corner, saying: “We will support him, absolutely, all staff. As a manager, I support him and have 100 per cent belief in him.”

And yet Antony still faces an uncertain future at Old Trafford, particularly with new co-owner INEOS now leading football operations following Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s minority investment.

In the eyes of many, he has become a symbol of United’s profligate approach in the transfer market under the Glazer family’s ownership.

Before his eventual £80million signing in August 2022, United initially walked away from talks with Ajax after refusing to pay more than £60m. And as previously revealed by The Athletic, scouting reports on Antony during Ten Hag’s predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in charge had United staff valuing him at around £25m.

Antony celebrates last season, when he started strongly (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

In an interview in late 2022, then Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar said that he “challenged” United’s football director John Murtough and then chief executive Richard Arnold to “go as far as possible”. Eventually striking a deal rising to a potential €100million, former United goalkeeper Van der Sar got his way.

That €100million figure has raised questions over United’s ability to sell Antony this summer without incurring a substantial loss under financial fair play (FFP) rules.

In clubs’ accounts, a new player’s transfer fee is amortised — that is, spread over the length of their contract. After signing for an initial pound sterling fee of £81.3million on a five-year deal, Antony’s amortised cost will stand at £32.5m at the end of next season, his third at Old Trafford. If he were to be sold after June 30 this year, any fee would have to come in above £32.5m to guarantee a profit on that amortised fee in the books at the end of next season.

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And that is only part of the equation. The substantial cost of Antony’s wages — reported to be in the region of £200,000 a week — would also come off United’s books in the event of him being sold and count positively towards any FFP calculations.

Much would depend on the level of fee received. But even if United recouped a substantially lower amount than the £81.3million paid, they would likely have to absorb only a small FFP hit on next season’s books.

United’s FFP position is expected to improve from the start of next season regardless, with the significant losses sustained during the 2021-22 season no longer part of the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules (PSR) or UEFA’s equivalent regulations.

Antony’s only goal so far this season was against fourth-division Newport (Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

Selling Antony is not an issue from an accounting perspective, although United may face a challenge in raising much interest in a player who has performed well below expectations and could, by the summer, still be under criminal investigation by authorities in two countries.

Antony himself could also have other ideas regarding a transfer. He is said to have no desire to leave United and, while accepting he has a challenge to win his place back, he wishes to stay to compete for it.

That challenge would become even greater if Ten Hag is no longer in charge.

Although no change of manager is expected until INEOS’ wider restructuring of United’s football operations hierarchy is lined up, Ratcliffe has so far stopped short of publicly backing the incumbent and guaranteeing that he will remain in place next season.

Antony already faces a tall order in convincing the biggest and most consistent advocate of his abilities that he is deserving of a regular starting place for United.

If Ten Hag isn’t around, the job would be to prove he has a future at Old Trafford full stop.

(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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Mark Critchley is a football writer for The Athletic, covering Manchester United and Manchester City. Mark joined after five years as The Independent’s northern football correspondent. Follow Mark on Twitter @mjcritchley

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