Antony’s arrival signals a bold upset from Manchester United | Jonathan Liew

OWe probably need to talk about the money first. This is the 13th most expensive transfer of all time, between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. This brings Manchester United’s spending to around £200m plus potential additions, and with the signings of Tyrell Malacia and Lisandro Martínez, United are responsible for around 48% of Manchester United’s total summer transfer income. the Eredivisie.

“God decides my future,” Antony said in an interview last week, when he was still an Ajax player. But, you know, an offer of £86m from one of the richest clubs in the world doesn’t hurt either.

Simple intuition warns us to beware. All red flags are present and correct, given what we know about United, and in particular United in the transfer market, and in particular United in the transfer market in the final week of the window after a bad start of the season. The sense of urgency and panic. The grossly inflated fee for a 22-year-old striker who has never scored more than nine league goals in a season. The fact that he was identified not through an exhaustive empirical analysis and scouting process, but because the new manager knows him from Ajax.

The mechanics of Antony’s transfer are emblematic of United’s many dysfunctions. The player himself, however: well, that makes a strange sense. Antony could well step straight into the United squad for Sunday’s game against Arsenal, and the irony is that he joins a club quite different from the one that reignited their bid to sign him a fortnight ago. Three successive wins have cast the Erik ten Hag project in a subtle new light, and their 1-0 win at Leicester on Thursday night was perhaps the most telling indication yet that something hugely interesting is afoot.

The big tell-tale was how United took possession of the ball. Christian Eriksen fell so deep that he sometimes played as a third centre-half. Full-backs Malacia and Diogo Dalot pushed high, but not down the flanks. Instead, they occupied more central positions, almost similar to where a No. 8 would operate. It’s a trick that Pep Guardiola has often sought to deploy, and it serves a dual purpose. Firstly, if you lose the ball, you are in a better position to thwart a potential counterattack. Second, it gives your wingmen more room to move and attack. And that’s where Antoine comes in.

Manchester United Lineups
Manchester United’s preferred line-up in 2021-22 (left) and 2022-23 (right) based on league starts. Players on both sides are in bold.

Left-footed Antony is expected to slot in on the right, a long-standing problematic position for United. He dribbles at high speed, cuts inside for the cross or the shot, presses with energy and “gritted”: an Italian term that Ten Hag likes to use to refer to players with courage, grit, the will to fight and win at all costs. Jadon Sancho, meanwhile, will move to the left. Marcus Rashford can also operate there, or challenge Anthony Martial at centre-forward. Bruno Fernandes can sit behind the top three, although in the longer term Ten Hag may have plans to rehabilitate Donny van de Beek’s career. Wait. Did we miss anyone?

Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Manchester United
Cristiano Ronaldo has been on the bench since the Brentford defeat and Ten Hag is keen to build a team without him. Photograph: James Williamson/AMA/Getty Images

Oh yes. After trying and failing to leave the club, Ronaldo found himself on the bench since the Brentford game. (It’s also worth remembering that he lost a child five months ago and has every excuse to be distracted.) And yet Antony’s arrival is perhaps the clearest signal that Ten Hag intends to build a team without him: fast, mobile, unpredictable, and with multiple threats from multiple angles.

That in itself is a quietly groundbreaking development, throwing the club off the charts a year ago after a season in which it scored 18 league goals. And that’s commensurate with the remarkable upheaval that has taken place in the space of just one summer.

It was United’s first-choice starting XI of last season, based on most league starts. De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf, Maguire, Shaw; Fred, McTominay; Greenwood, Fernandes, Sancho; Ronaldo. Only four are still on the side. The entire defense has been replaced. Scott McTominay will soon make way for Casemiro. David de Gea will almost certainly be replaced once a suitable replacement becomes available. Which leaves only Sancho and Fernandes. “I wanted to replace the whole squad,” grumbled Ten Hag after the 4-0 collapse at Brentford. Well, it’s almost there.

It was a process that even Alex Ferguson took years rather than months to implement, looking not just for winning talent but for winning characters, players who would fight for each other, players who could play according to a map. What Ten Hag is attempting here – and it sounds like hyperbole – is one of the boldest acts of major surgery ever seen at one of Europe’s top clubs in such a short time.

There is no guarantee that it will work. The time for judgment is long gone. United’s three recent wins have come against teams happy to race against them.

It remains to be seen how they will cope with teams that are deep-seated against them, with the Europa League football grind, how long sidelined players will be content to sit out without making any stories, how long they can keep throwing big money after bad. It is an ambitious plan. It’s a flawed plan. It may even be a doomed plan. But it is, at least, a plan.

Antony’s arrival signals a bold upset from Manchester United | Jonathan Liew

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