It took a little over half-an-hour of their professional relationship for Antony Matheus Dos Santos, a dazzling winger freshly arrived from his native Brazil, to show Erik ten Hag, his head coach at Ajax, what constitutes a ‘typical’ Antony goal. The player was making his league debut in Rotterdam against Sparta on a warm September afternoon, and, receiving the ball while tucked in from his position wide on the right, he cut inside.
The cut inside, right to left, is Antony’s first instinct, as Ten Hag, now busy assembling a plan to revive Manchester United, knows as well as anybody who has coached him.
In fact, Antony’s cut inside is as thoroughly signposted to opponents as any aspect of a 22-year-old footballer’s game can be. Ten Hag, who worked as an assistant at Bayern Munich when Arjen Robben was commanding that club’s right flank, has compared him to the flying Dutchman. The preferred manoeuvre both players share, the glide from right to left, was partly why he likened them.
Robben spent 20 years at the top of the game, and used to joke that everybody eventually forecast correctly what he was most likely to do when he received the ball.
“I’ll cut inside, obviously,” he would smile, confident that although defenders knew which was his stronger foot, and would automatically anticipate him shepherding the ball towards the best place to strike or cross it with his left, simply being predictable was not the same as being tameable.
After his first half-hour of action in Eredivisie, feeling out how deep Sparta wanted to defend, Antony took a bold gamble. His cut inside had taken him to 25 yards from goal and he unleashed a low, angled shot that bounced in front of the goalkeeper and into the corner of the net.
He went into half-time 10 minutes later to hearty congratulations from his new teammates. He should try it again, he was urged from within a dressing-room where colleagues knew Antony had more than enough confidence in his shooting from long range to do just that, and that, even if the basic geometry of his favoured movements would become more and more familiar, his cutting inside was brilliantly finessed.
Two years later, Antony is set on joining Ten Hag at United, Ajax having accepted a fee that would rise to around €100m if certain targets are met. It is a high price but in the United manager’s mind’s eye is the considerable damage that can be done to opponents with the precision tool of that left foot, and the feints and sways that perplex those trying to marshal Antony.
Ten Hag can count up the goals and assists from the two Eredivisie-winning seasons they worked together at Ajax: 20 Antony assists, across competitions, many of them laser-guided crosses; 21 further goals after that curtain-raiser in Rotterdam.
More often than not they were shots angled in with that left foot, but each had its own stamp, high or low, thunderbolt or snooker-shot, and some magnificent curling efforts.
United are closing in a potentially thrilling entertainer, an Olympic champion - Antony’s superb pass set up the winning goal for Brazil in extra time of the Tokyo men’s final against Spain - and a candidate for a place in his country’s fiercely-contested forward line for the World Cup if he starts as well in the Premier League as he did in Dutch football.
Tite, the Brazil head coach, has compared him to Neymar. Cesar Sampaio, Tite’s assistant, calls him “typically Brazilian, in that he breaks between the lines.”
150 summer transfers
Ten Hag has for most of the summer been pushing his employers at United to seal the transfer, fully knowing Antony would welcome the Old Trafford move. The manager would expect to have his judgement of the player’s potential to adapt to English football put under immediate scrutiny, given the size of the fee.
The leap in standards from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is big, as Hakim Ziyech, who preceded Antony as the man with the magic wand of left foot at Ajax, might testify.
The Morocco international has had impactful moments since leaving Amsterdam for Chelsea in 2020, but the London club are now encouraging interest from Ajax in taking back a player they are ready to sell.
Full-backs in Holland, often raw in what is a youthful Dutch top-flight, are easier to skip past than they tend to be in England’s leading division, where Antony would come up against defenders more skilled at showing him onto his weaker foot. Not that his right leg is only for standing on. He can spear in a fine cross after taking on markers on their outside. It’s just he prefers to cut inside - and backs himself to work wonders once he does.