Antony is the diabolical signing who reveals a bigger problem at Manchester United

Erik ten Hag’s recruitment choices are coming under the microscope as an expensively assembled Man Utd team toil under his charge

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Tuesday 31 October 2023 08:02 GMT
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Related video: I see positive and negatives, we are improving though, says Ten Hag

It was a display of pointless petulance. Enter the second most expensive footballer in Manchester United’s history. He should have exited a few minutes later, slightly prematurely, for kicking and slapping Jeremy Doku. Referee Paul Tierney spared Antony the ignominy of a Manchester derby red card; Jadon Sancho may argue it is the not the first time the £86m winger has received preferential treatment. His initial station among the substitutes nevertheless told a tale.

Dropped for the derby, Antony has merited a place for too few of the games he has started. But only Paul Pogba has ever cost United more than him. Manchester City’s glory has not come on the cheap, but only Jack Grealish in their history has had a higher price tag than Antony. He has one goal in his last 29 league games; in all competitions, eight goals and a mere three assists in 53 outings for United.

A deeply undistinguished footballer and a diabolical signing is the face of a wider problem. After a £400m refurbishment in his reign, Erik ten Hag’s United have more league defeats than Nottingham Forest. They are already eight points off the top four, seven behind Aston Villa. When the 35-year-old free transfer Jonny Evans was charged with halting Erling Haaland on Sunday, it was tempting to wonder where the money went. And when the bench contained two of Ten Hag’s biggest buys, in Mason Mount and Antony, the logical conclusion is that United’s recruitment has failed.

The reality may be more complicated. For now, however, United stand accused of paying over the odds, of bringing in some who are not good enough, of confused thinking, of continuing to spend too much and achieve too little. In different ways, there have been demoralising starts for each of this summer’s three main buys: Andre Onana excelled against Copenhagen and City, but only after a series of errors in previous weeks; Hojlund, costing £72m after a mere nine Serie A goals for Atalanta, has struck in the Champions League and hinted at abundant potential but is yet to find the net in the Premier League; Mount has looked incompatible with Bruno Fernandes, started the last three games as a substitute, and can seem a case of the wrong type of midfielder being targeted, a No 10 when United actually required a No 8.

There is confidence at Old Trafford that each will come good; perhaps Hojlund is the likeliest to succeed. Onana is at least designed to bring an added dimension and a passing ethos, though there are few signs Ten Hag will solve the Mount conundrum. Their combined cost – add-ons will take the fees to around £180m – is eye-catching, more than United initially hoped to spend and, so far, not exactly value for money, especially as Onana was available for free in 2022. They are however conscious of the “United tax” applied to players when they bid and believe that, looking at deals rival clubs concluded this summer – such as Paris Saint-Germain’s signing of Randal Kolo Muani – they have not overpaid; Mount’s negligible impact, especially in comparison with other summer midfield movers like Dominik Szoboszlai, Declan Rice, James Maddison and James Ward-Prowse, is nevertheless damning.

Mason Mount is yet to find his feet at Old Trafford

A different issue is that some of last season’s supposed success stories have struggled this year. Ten Hag seemed to have brought in two talismanic figures, though Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who is set to buy a 25 per cent stake in the club, questioned the policy of spending £60m on Casemiro, whose age meant he will have scant resale value. Now the increasingly immobile Brazilian has begun to look in decline, a defensive midfielder who is affording the defence less protection.

Lisandro Martinez, meanwhile, is sidelined. Ten Hag argued that playing with injury hampered him during his dreadful start to the campaign, when he looked a liability. “There was the Licha Martinez in the last games and the Licha Martinez we have seen in the first season here,” he reflected a few weeks ago. But it has meant that United have derived too few benefits this season from the six signings who account for the vast majority of that £400m: Antony and Mount have been dropped; Casemiro, Onana and Martinez perhaps should have been.

That Ten Hag has 16 signings in all may seem further cause for the prosecution, though three – Altay Bayindir, Jack Butland and Martin Dubravka – were back-up goalkeepers, of whom only one has played. There were resourceful cut-price loans, in Marcel Sabitzer and Sergio Reguilon; United should not be faulted for either. If there is an air of desperation about Evans’ return, the real problem is that he took the field against Arsenal and City. Christian Eriksen was another free transfer: until he was injured in January, he looked a brilliant one. Yet as with Casemiro, the concern is that he lacks the running power, compounding the shortcomings in the midfield.

Christian Eriksen looks short of running power in United’s midfield

Then there are three others, with a recurring theme: a past in the Eredivisie, a division Ten Hag seems to overrate. He also appears to have too much faith in the clients of his agents, SEG; United and their football director John Murtough have backed their manager, but the eventual verdict may be that they gave him too much leeway.

Perhaps United did not need a £12m back-up to Luke Shaw when they signed the Dutchman Tyrell Malacia. His compatriot Wout Weghorst represented a bizarre interlude, his 31 games producing a mere two goals. Sofyan Amrabat’s World Cup displays indicated his arrival was a coup – though his deadline-day move highlighted how United prioritised Mount in their midfield – but Ten Hag’s former Utrecht ally has been hauled off at half-time in each of the last two games.

He, too, has time to come good, though slow starts are inauspicious. But, in their different ways, Weghorst and Amrabat are proof that everything in United’s transfer business comes back to Antony, sooner or later. Having overspent last summer, they had limited funds in January and had to look for loanees, rather than Cody Gakpo, a forward Ten Hag liked. A knock-on effect was their net spend this summer had to be limited to around £120m; there was only just scope to sneak in Amrabat on an £8.3m loan. All of which may have been forgivable had Antony been worth £86m; instead United paid at least twice the sum they should and, given his performances, they should not have bought him to begin with. Whatever Ten Hag saw in him at Ajax has rarely been glimpsed at Old Trafford.

The sullen substitute is not the only reason why United currently have too little to show for their £400m outlay. But if that may change as Onana, Mount and Hojlund settle, when Martinez is fit again, if he and Casemiro recapture last season’s form, Ten Hag’s choices nevertheless put his decision-making under the microscope. Because at the moment, Manchester United have a rather expensive brand of mediocrity.

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