As Manchester United fans headed towards Old Trafford on packed trams, which felt more like mobile greenhouses on an unseasonably warm afternoon, the conversation revolved around one man: Antony.
Signed after protracted negotiations with Ajax for an £82million fee, Antony had been the subject of intense debate since his arrival in England with two opposing camps donning their armour and beginning to dig trenches.
To some, the Brazil international was the defibrillator that’d revive a previously comatose United attack. On the other side of No Man’s Land, some United fans were critical of the transfer fee and thought the money would’ve been better spent on a centre-forward or new goalkeeper.
But, as kick-off approached, Old Trafford was brimming with expectation. Erik ten Hag had named Antony in the starting XI, with opponents Arsenal in a boisterous mood following their 100% start to the new season.
Forget the armbands some managers attach to their new signings, Ten Hag had thrown Antony straight into the Premier League deep end. It proved to be the latest inspired decision from United’s bald messiah.
Antony’s first-half goal inevitably grabbed the headlines; played in by Marcus Rashford, the 22-year-old swept his Romario-esque finish past Aaron Ramsdale and tested the structural integrity of his Adidas shirt in celebration.
But it was his combination of bravado and brains that captivated the United faithful. Although Antony would’ve been aware of United’s struggles – that Brentford game was broadcast live in Amsterdam – he’d not lived it like Rashford or Jadon Sancho. The lack of inhibition was tangible.
And he was determined to put on a show. When Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus attempted to close him down near the byline, Antony drew them in like iron filings towards a magnet before flicking the ball audaciously between the Arsenal pair.
Old Trafford whooped appreciatively. But this wasn’t merely a circus trick; Antony had spotted Diogo Dalot lurking unmarked and delivered him the ball with pinpoint accuracy. Christian Eriksen was close to capping the move with a spectacular finish.
Antony showing some IQ and skill here to hold off the ball pic.twitter.com/U6hezFd8AL
— #TeamOrtizJr🇲🇽 (@OniSixx) September 4, 2022
It helped that Antony had Scott McTominay in close proximity to mop up any defensive duties and allow the £82million man to set about becoming United’s own fantasy footballer.
Although, in the game’s early stages, he spent some time tracking Gabriel Martinelli. You suspect it was this that sent Ten Hag to bed with a huge smile on his chops last night.
“I think we have already seen what a threat he is. Speed and creativity are a real threat in the Premier League,” the United boss said after their 3-1 victory.
“And he is a part of it. And I think we missed a player on the right wing because all the players that can play there like Jadon Sancho, like Marcus Rashford, prefer more the centre or the left side.
“Antony is amazing,” added Bruno Fernandes. “Obviously an amazing feeling for him. I’m really happy for what he did today. He will adapt to the Premier League and he will be even better.”
While Antony’s debut certainly captured the imagination – fans were signing his name across the suburbs of south Manchester on Sunday night – a word of caution is required: plenty of United signings, from Angel di Maria to Romelu Lukaku, looked sensational at first before being sucked into the United vortex.
One good performance hasn’t justified Antony’s transfer fee. But his imperious flick indicated that he’s a player capable of combining intelligence and ingenuity to devastating effect.
Watch out everybody, United have acquired their very own fantasy footballer.
By Michael Lee