Antony proved Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United prediction right at the World Cup

December 11, 2022

We have to expect more from him. He needs challenges; that’s why he came to the Premier League. He gets it here.

It has been a tough few days for Antony, but it might just be the making of him in a Manchester United shirt.

The 22-year-old had the weight of a nation on his shoulders when he featured from the bench in Brazil’s quarter-final exit to Croatia on Friday, a cameo that would end in tears following their penalty shootout heartbreak.

During his time on the pitch, Antony showcased both the good and the bad of his game, something that Erik ten Hag is well aware of. There were the customary samba skills, the fierce fight and the determination to battle for the ball.

But, there was also the naivety that still plagues him. He was wasteful in possession at times, struggled to help his side kill off the game when ahead with poor decision-making, and he was chastised for a dive in an attempt to win a penalty.

Antony’s gamesmanship will be used against him by critics, and while it was not acceptable behaviour for many, it did demonstrate how desperate he was to win and how much risk he was willing to take to do so.

It is that craft that has made him what he is today, and it is that deftness that makes him such a unique threat on the United side, a player capable of doing what few others can do, even if his magic often creeps into the realms of the dark arts.

This is a young man who has had the odds stacked against him ever since he was a child growing up in a São Paulo favela called Inferninho — ‘little hell’. He has always had to do whatever he can to survive.

His style of play is still heavily influenced by the futsal and street football he used to play at every opportunity; this game he loves was the pathway out of poverty, fuelled by his enormous talent and the even greater desire to win at all costs.

“In the beginning, I played barefoot, on bleeding feet,” he told the Player’s Tribune last month. “We did not have money for proper shoes. I was small, but I dribbled with a meanness that came from God. Dribbling was always something inside me. It was a natural instinct.

“I went from the slums to Ajax to Manchester United in three years. People always ask me how I was able to ‘turn the key’ so quickly. Honestly, it is because I feel no pressure on a football pitch.”

Antony has endured a mixed start to his life at Old Trafford, with three goals but no assists from his first 11 appearances. He offers more than just goal contributions to the side, but given the enormous £80m price tag paid for him, it is also understandable why those are the metrics he is measured against.

As we saw on Friday night, he is still a very raw talent, but he clearly has the makings of an elite forward. In order to do that, it will take careful man-management from Ten Hag and a lot of work from the player himself to become a more consistent threat in the final third.

“He can cross with his right foot. He is a young player we have to develop, but he has to develop himself,” Ten Hag said after Antony netted in a 2-1 win over Everton.

“We have to expect more from him. He needs challenges; that’s why he came to the Premier League. He gets it here.

“He wants to play with the best players, the highest stress factors against the best players. From there on, he will step up. That’s what you see: first weeks, he scored goals, he did good stuff, but also, I saw a lot of room for improvement in his game.”

Antony certainly got a taste of the highest stress factors imaginable on Friday evening, and even though it ended badly for him, it will prove to be a priceless experience in his long-term development.

United would be foolish to try and coach that tenacity and flair out of the forward in a pursuit for a more reliable and robotic style of play, but there is certainly work to be done to ensure he takes fewer risks and becomes a more consistent performer in the final third.

It helps that he has a coach who understands him so well and already knows how to get the best out of him, but at a club with as much scrutiny as United, time won’t be on his side if the performances don’t continue to improve.

In four years, he will be in his prime and hope to be the poster boy for Brazil at the next World Cup, but for any hope of that happening, he needs to become United’s first.