The Manchester United coaching staff feel the continued emergence of Rasmus Højlund could be the catalyst to “get the best” out of Antony this season.
The Brazilian winger endured a difficult debut year at Old Trafford, following his blockbuster transfer from Ajax.
While it would be difficult for any player to immediately justify a transfer fee worth in excess of £80 million, it would be particularly difficult for a diminutive winger entering the rigours of English football for the first time, devoid of the tactical set-up which saw him thrive at Ajax.
Antony’s game in Amsterdam was largely built on link-up play and trickery in the final third. His technical ability is excellent, and he possesses acceleration and quick-footedness when cutting in on his favoured left foot.
This speed advantage only exists over the first five yards, however. Antony lacks meaningful top-end speed and his lightweight frame does not lend itself to one-on-one duels over large distances with Premier League defenders.
Erik ten Hag’s side often sat deep last season, almost content to let the opposing team push up, so the devastating counter-attacking abilities of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes could be triggered. This is not a style which suits the unimposing Antony.
In a United shirt, the Brazilian often found himself on the ball around the halfway line, with a level of space he lacks the physicality to attack. In the white and red of Ajax, Antony was far more likely to receive the ball in the final third, closer to the opposition goal, where his burst of acceleration and manipulation of the ball were far more dangerous weapons.
As such, Antony operates optimally with a central presence to play off. In Amsterdam, the Brazilian enjoyed combining with Sebastien Haller to great effect in the final third. In Manchester last season, Antony did not have a consistent centre-forward to target through cutting in on his left.
Sebastien Haller can't stop scoring for Ajax in the Champions League! 🔥
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) November 3, 2021
Furthermore, this over-reliance on his talented left foot produces a painful predictability when engaging with fullbacks down the outside.
It’s a combination of factors which produced an environment Antony would always struggle in. He is the type of winger who, almost paradoxically, thrives with the less space he has to operate in. At United, Antony suffered from too much space with too much time on the ball, too far from the opposition’s goal.
This is why Højlund could prove key to providing the platform for his Brazilian team-mate to begin succeeding in.
The Danish striker possesses a potent pairing of power and pace; the type which strikes fear into defender’s hearts. Standing an imposing 191cm tall, Højlund is also reportedly capable of running the 100m in less than eleven seconds. It’s a frightening combination, particularly given the striker is only 20 years of age.
He is not a one-trick pony, however.
Højlund is also an intelligent forward, who consistently makes smart runs down either channel to help stretch the defence. This style of movement is excellent at opening space centrally for a winger to cut inside in.
The Dane is also refreshingly adept in link-up play. It’s still early days, but Højlund has shown an ability to hold the ball up and help knit play, in the face of Premier League and Champions League opposition.
United’s number eleven is, therefore, the type of striker Antony was devoid of last season.
Højlund should help United to play higher up the pitch this year. His speed gives defences a reason to drop deeper, while his hold-up play offers teammates a viable target to progress the ball forward to.
An analysis of the underlying metrics of Ten Hag’s side this season, in comparison to last, shows United are operating far higher up the pitch, with much more aggression. While performances, and results in particular, have been severely lacking, these statistics offer an insight into what the Dutch manager is trying to get his team to do.
Given Højlund and Antony are also yet to start a competitive match together, it’s a tantalising prospect for United fans. And one which United’s coaching staff are banking on helping the Brazilian recapture the form which saw the club secure his services at such great expense in the first place.