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Window Shopping: Is Antony The Next Big Thing?

Antony of AFC Ajax acknowledges the fans after the Dutch Eredivisie match between Ajax and sc Heerenveen at Johan Cruijff Arena on May 11, 2022 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?

In the (criminal and unforgivable) absence of a World Cup this summer, the transfer window is just about the only thing going on in Big Soccer right now. This is bad, but not all bad. It’s bad because transfer talk is often insane, distracting, unpredictable, and full of lies; it’s also kind of good, for—well, for those exact same reasons. The rumor mill is a madhouse, crammed with bullshit, thrills, blatant fakery, tantalizing options, and, at times, genuine information about moves that will come to define the season. Navigating it all can be tricky, but it can also be loads of fun, just so long as you can keep it all in proper perspective. And we are here to help.

One side effect of this World Cup–less summer is that the transfer market is already in full swing. Usually in a World Cup year there is a brief flurry of activity before the tournament starts, as clubs try to lock in deals before a good Cup showing jacks up the price, followed by an even bigger rush when the competition is over, when clubs pay top dollar for all the guys who impressed during the event. Without the World Cup to structure the window in that way, some of the bigger moves have already happened—Erling Haaland to Manchester City, Darwin Núñez to Liverpool, Sadio Mané to Bayern Munich—while others that very well could go down—Raheem Sterling to Chelsea, Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona, Neymar to somewhere—are already in the works. There’s a lot that can happen, and some of it actually will happen, which makes it useful to look at some of these cases and assess how they all might turn out.

One of the more intriguing potential moves of the summer is that of Antony, Ajax’s Brazilian dynamo. The 22-year-old joined the Dutch club in the summer of 2020 from São Paulo and immediately became the next big thing for a club that specializes in developing the next big things. In two full seasons at Ajax, Antony managed 17 goals and 12 assists in domestic play, adding three goals and five assists in the Champions League. Part of his success can be attributed to the relative weakness of the Eredivisie compared to Ajax’s continental levels of talent. His threat is more a matter of volume than efficiency.

That being said, Antony showed up in big game after big game for the club, and the big clubs across the continent and in England began paying attention. He’s now rumored to be the target of bids hitting superstar-level fees. Is Antony worth that kind of hype and financial commitment? Let’s find out.

What Are The Rumors?

If there is a “big” team in England that needs some help from the transfer market, it’s Manchester United. It’s therefore no surprise that the Red Devils are reportedly Antony’s most insistent suitors this summer. With the potential departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and the confirmed departure of Paul Pogba, the team is in need of some star power to climb back into the Premier League’s top-four fight. On that note, reports this week say United has bid almost €60 million for the Brazilian, in attempts to pry him away from Ajax and into a reunion with his former coach and new United manager Erik ten Hag. Ajax, for its part, values him at something closer to €80 million, so there’s some work to be done there.

There have also been rumors of interest from Chelsea, but Chelsea is rumored to want every winger under the sun, and they are reportedly close to both Raheem Sterling and either Raphinha or Ousmane Dembélé, so their Antony links are probably unlikely enough to ignore.

Are These Rumors Bullshit?

That ten Hag is now patrolling the sidelines for United lends a lot of credence to this rumor. Soccer managers love their guys, the ones they have developed from prospect to star, and Antony is just that for ten Hag. United really needs a right-winger, Antony is probably the best right-winger on the market, and the ten Hag connection makes the mooted reunion even more plausible.

If there’s reason to doubt that the transfer will wind up going through, it’s due to the Red Devils’ other transfer dealings. Everyone knows at this point that United is pushing hard to sign midfielder Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona, for a reported cost of around €65–85 million, depending on how the add-ons shake out. That deal, should it go through, will claim a significant chunk of the club’s transfer budget. Factor in something like €50 million the club is trying to use to sign center back Lisandro Martínez (shocker: yet another Ajax player), and the €15 million it’s already paid for left back Tyrell Malacia, and it’s not entirely clear if United will have the funds to push through Antony’s signing this summer.

If that’s the case, then Antony’s future might depend on Ronaldo’s. If United is able to free up Ronaldo’s salary, and can couple that with another sale from its already overcrowded wide-forward ranks, then the club could justify shelling out the cash for the Brazilian.

What Does He Do?

Somewhat surprisingly for a Brazilian winger, Antony is not the chaotic dribbling specialist you might imagine. This is not a flaw in his game, but rather a differentiation. Whereas a lot of players from South America’s soccer power thrive in one-on-one scenarios, Antony is more of a team winger. As such, his biggest strength relies in how he can combine with other attackers to create beautiful, flowing moves.

His in-the-box game is stellar: He can provide give-and-gos with strikers and opposite side wingers, he can simply assist as needed (he finished the Champions League campaign with five assists, fourth overall in the competition), and he can slap in curlers from anywhere inside or even outside the 18-yard area.

Antony won’t be the best one-on-one dribbler in the league, but he has enough burst and ball control to attempt knock-ons that free him up for one of those aforementioned outcomes. He also can cross the ball with accuracy, particularly if he finds himself on the left side. In short, he is a complete player in the attacking third. He may not be a flashy soloist, but he has the makings of an elite amplifier of the talents around him.

Lastly, he is a left-footed right winger, which by itself makes him highly coveted. As the game has shifted to using inverted wingers—that is, players who play on the side of the pitch that corresponds to their weaker foot, so that they can cut inside and do their thing closer to goal—the majority of right-footed wingers shifted over to the left side. While there are dozens of right-footers who can do considerable damage coming off the left, there are far fewer players who can do so on the other flank. Hence why Antony and his compatriot Raphinha, presently of Leeds United but soon to be joining Barcelona or Chelsea or Arsenal, have both been fast-tracked to the very top of the game this summer.

Antony’s one-footedness can hamper the crosses from the right, but he rarely needs to resort to that anyway. Instead, he is able to drive in between defending left backs and center backs and rip those aforementioned shots off his left foot, or hit outside-of-the-boot passes to open players. He’s smart, inventive, can score and assist, and has freakish amounts of technique that allow him to control and manipulate the ball at his feet as if he were using his hands. Though still an unfinished product, Antony is a great bet to become one of the true stars at his position in the years to come.

What Doesn’t He Do?

Antony has two main weaknesses, one fixable with coaching and the other with a proper training regimen.

The first is that, unlike the most complete wingers, he does not provide much in terms of defense. Looking at the top teams in the Premier League, they all have hard-working attackers who are eager to defend, whether it involves running forward to press or running backwards to cover space. So far, that has not been a part of Antony’s game. Part of that is due to Ajax’s supremacy in the Eredivisie, where he’s not needed to run back on defense. In turn, this lets him stay high up the field, which contributes to his high offensive volume. This isn’t a deal-breaking weakness; at a new club in a new, more competitive league, there’s no reason to think that Antony won’t learn how to become at the very least an adequate defensive presence.

The other weakness is a bigger one: He’s just not that physically imposing. He’s skinny, which would become more of an issue against the Premier League’s burly defenders. And though he’s quick, he isn’t overwhelmingly fast or powerful on the run, as he prefers instead to glide into open spaces and create passing combinations, alongside change-of-pace dribbles. As mentioned above, these are some of his strengths, and are what make him particularly good against compact defenses, but he has to be perfect with his touches; otherwise, he can get muscled off the ball or chased down in space.

To borrow from our basketball writers here, Antony simply needs to get on a heavy pasta diet in order to combat that style of defending. More accurately, he needs to have enough bulk to offset his low stature. It’s not unsolvable, but physical improvement is generally a more difficult, and lengthier, process than those of a tactical variety. It might also cause him to start off slowly if and when he moves to the Premier League.

How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?

Antony is exactly the type of winger that most top teams want on their roster. He can provide deadly counter-attacking pace for a side that prefers to defend, like Chelsea or Tottenham, or he can be one of the many engines in a more free-flowing system, such as Liverpool’s or Manchester City’s. His presence on the right side of the field frees up a team from having to fill the sparsest attacking position, and his youth should offer him plenty of time to grow. As long as whatever team ends up purchasing him doesn’t expect a 20 goals, 10 assists season from the rip, then Antony is the type of guy that can help push an offense from middling to good, or from good into the stratosphere.

Who Would Hate This Move?

Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager’s position, the fans’ outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.

The answer to this question depends on what United does elsewhere, and whether or not Ronaldo stays. Let’s assume that he leaves, because that’s cleaner. If so, Antony would slot in nicely on the right wing, with Jadon Sancho on the left and probably Marcus Rashford in the center. That’s a janky fit insofar as both Antony and Sancho require good combo play with a striker, something that is not Rashford’s strength. (In fact, that duo would probably pair better with the ancient-yet-still-useful Edinson Cavani.)

If Ronaldo were to stay, though, then one of the Rashford-Sancho duo would see Antony as a threat. Antony would claim the spot on the right, and the two Englishmen would duke it out for the spot on the left. Whichever of those two lost out would then stand to lose a lot of playing time.

As for Ajax and its fans, they as a group would likely hate the move because Antony is a fan favorite. But this is what Ajax does maybe better than anyone: develop a player, win some trophies, make runs in the Champions League, then sell him on for a huge profit. It would be a little bit of a bummer to see yet another Ajax player on a fun Ajax team make a huge money move, but they’ll likely have another on the way soon enough.

Point-Counterpoint

Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.

Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?

There are no sure things when a player moves from a smaller league to the Premier League, but Antony is about as close as one can get, provided a little patience. He can do almost everything a top team needs from its winger, and the fact that he plays on the rarer right side boosts his value considerably. That he can both create for himself and others makes him a viable piece in any type of offense, and he’s only 22 years old. His weaknesses might make him lack some production in his first season or so, but with a proper coach and gameplan, there’s no reason he can’t be the next great Premier League winger. For these reasons, Antony grades at a 73.4 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.

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