Antony’s controversial circus trick was the act of a true Manchester United winger

Antony was hooked just seven minutes after his double ‘spin skill’ – but there was a recent time when acts of swagger by the Old Trafford touchline were revered

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Friday 28 October 2022 12:57 BST
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Man United’s Erik ten Hag vows to ‘correct’ players doing skills for the sake of it

It was out near the same Old Trafford touchline, some 14 years ago now, that another Manchester United winger decided to dabble in a spot of showboating. Four unanswered goals up against Arsenal with about a quarter of an hour remaining, Nani infamously embarked on a “seal dribble”, juggling the ball with his forehead as poor Justin Hoyte desperately tried and failed to keep up with him, and eventually crumpled to the floor, getting back up only to be beaten again.

Helped by the fact it was the pick of that year’s FA Cup fifth round ties and broadcasted to millions on terrestrial television, it was a largely inconsequential moment that has become an abiding memory, as has the fact that Nani was rebuked for his flamboyance by Sir Alex Ferguson in the dressing room afterwards. Nani was told “he didn’t need to do that”.

“Obviously, I agreed,” he later said. “I always follow the orders of my coach and am not interested in causing controversy.”

Except Ferguson was not always entirely consistent on the issue of his players taking the piss, and not even consistent on this specific instance involving Nani. A few months later during United’s most successful season since 1999, before the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final against Roma, the United manager was asked about accusations that Cristiano Ronaldo humiliated their opponents with unnecessary trickery at the Stadio Olimpico. “I don’t care,” came the response.

“We encourage it. We encourage it in all the players,” Ferguson said. “In this modern era, it is a refreshing change to see players who are not going to be intimidated by opponents and are just going to keep on doing what they are doing.” When the contradiction with his comments on Nani after the Arsenal game was pointed out, he revealed that “after what Arséne said” he had watched the tape of the FA Cup tie back. “I didn’t see that Nani was showboating.”

It was a typically cantankerous and mischievous Ferguson answer, and possibly just a stubborn defence of his players for the sake of it, but still an insistence that the most technically gifted among his squad should be allowed to express themselves fully, especially if their opponents do not like it. And given that, you wonder what Ferguson made of Antony’s circus act against Sheriff Tiraspol, and his successor’s similarly ambiguous response.

Television cameras trained on Old Trafford’s home dugout caught Erik ten Hag frown and shake his head when, with game still goalless, his €100m signing broke out what is fast becoming his trademark - turning in a circle twice with the ball stuck to his left boot - only to then overhit an ambitious pass out for a goal kick. Antony’s night would only last another seven minutes. He was hauled off at half time.

Together, that shot of Ten Hag frowning and the subsequent substitution suggested a manager not best pleased with his player. And yet it is worth remembering that Ten Hag’s grimace could have been for the misplaced pass rather than for the trick that preceded it. And when it came to the substitution, the United manager said Antony’s removal was “more or less planned.”

“If we are up, I wanted to see Cristiano and Marcus Rashford close together on the right side and that’s one of the reasons,” he said, suggesting he took advantage of Diogo Dalot’s breakthrough on the cusp of half time to experiment tactically. “I thought [Alejandro] Garnacho was playing quite well on the left side and he had good tempo dribbling. It was more or less planned.”

As for Antony’s trick itself, he didn’t have a problem with it on one proviso. “As long as it’s functional,” he insisted. “I demand more from him – more runs behind, more often in the box and more playing in the pocket. When there is a trick like that, it’s nice as long as it’s functional. If you’re not losing the ball then it’s OK but if it’s a trick [for the sake of] a trick then I will correct him.” So, was the trick functional?

It did not exactly relieve any pressure. The only Sheriff player nearby stood off him, watched and admired. The subsequent pass was the right idea but had too much weight on it. Antony ultimately lost the ball – exactly what Ten Hag said not to do – and a spell of promising possession came to nothing. Yet watch the clip closely and you notice that the pass is for Casemiro, who has made a blindside run into the box, losing a marker who is too caught up in what Antony is doing. In that way, it worked.

Antony has swagger that was valued at Old Trafford once upon a time

And you imagine up to the point of the misplaced pass, Ten Hag was happy. After all, this was not the first time he had seen Antony’s trick. It was not even the first time he had seen it this week. He did the same against Chelsea, except it was just the one 360° revolution that time rather than two. He made a habit of it at Ajax too, as anyone who put together one of the many YouTube highlights compilations upon his move to Old Trafford will be able to tell you.

Ten Hag saw all of those spins and tricks first-hand from the touchline. He knew what he was getting when he encouraged the United hierarchy to overlook other options at right wing and conclude the club’s second-most expensive signing during the final weeks of the summer transfer window. Since then, Antony has proven to be a talent but a raw one, still only 22 years old, with plenty of room for improvement in several aspects of his all-round game.

One thing he does not lack, however, is a certain swagger, and you do not have to go too far back in United’s history to remember a time – a successful one, at that – when such swagger was considered no bad thing.

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