It was near the same Old Trafford touchline some fourteen years ago now that another Manchester United winger decided to go on a showboating spree. Four unanswered goals against Arsenal with around a quarter of an hour remaining, Nani infamously launched into a ‘seal dribble’, juggling the ball with his forehead as poor Justin Hoyte tried desperately and failed to get him. follow, and finally collapsed to the ground, getting up only to be beaten again.
Helped by the fact that it was the pick of that year’s FA Cup fifth round matches and broadcast to millions on terrestrial TV, it was a largely inconsequential moment that has become a memory eternal, as was the fact that Nani was reprimanded for his flamboyance by Sir Alex Ferguson in the dressing room afterwards. Nani was told “he didn’t need to do that”. “Obviously I accepted,” he said later. “I always follow my coach’s orders and I’m not interested in causing controversy.”
Except Ferguson hasn’t always been entirely consistent on the issue of his pissing players, and not even consistent on this specific case involving Nani. A few months later, in 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 would have humiliated his opponents with unnecessary trickery at the Stadio Olimpico. “I don’t care,” was the reply.
“We encourage it. We encourage that in all players,” Ferguson said. “In this modern era, it’s a refreshing change to see players who won’t be intimidated by opponents and just keep doing what they’re doing.” When the contradiction to his comments about Nani after the Arsenal game was pointed out, he revealed that “after what Arsene said” he had watched the FA Cup draw tape. “I didn’t see that Nani was showboating.”
It was a typically cantankerous and mischievous response from Ferguson, and perhaps just a stubborn defense of his players for fun, but still an insistence that the more technically gifted on his team be allowed to express themselves fully, especially if their opponents don’t like it. And given that, you wonder what Ferguson made of Antony’s sideshow against Sheriff Tiraspol, and his successor’s equally ambiguous response.
Television cameras trained on the Old Trafford home dugout surprised Erik ten Hag frowning and shaking his head when, with the game still scoreless, his €100million signing broke, what is becoming his trademark – spinning twice in a circle with the ball stuck to his left boot – only to then overtake an ambitious pass for a goal kick. Antoine’s night would only last seven minutes. He was sent off at halftime.
Together, that frowning Ten Hag shot and the ensuing substitution suggested a coach not very happy with his player. And yet, it’s worth remembering that Ten Hag’s grimace could have been for the misplaced pass rather than the stuff that preceded it. And regarding the replacement, the United manager says Antony’s removal was ‘more or less planned’.
“If we’re in place, I wanted to see Cristiano and Marcus Rashford closer on the right side and that’s one of the reasons,” he said, suggesting he capitalized on Diogo Dalot’s breakthrough at the dawn of halftime to experiment tactically. “I thought [Alejandro] Garnacho was playing pretty well on the left side and he had a good tempo dribbling. It was more or less planned. »
As for Antoine’s lap itself, he didn’t have a problem with that on one condition. “As long as it’s functional,” he insists. “I demand more from him – more runs behind, more often in the box and more play in the pocket. When there’s something like that, it’s nice as long as it’s functional. If you don’t lose not the ball then it’s OK but if it’s a trick [for the sake of] something then I’ll fix it. So, was the trick working?
It didn’t really relieve the pressure. The only sheriff player nearby stood next to him, staring at him and admiring him. The next pass was the right idea but had too much weight on it. Antony eventually lost the ball – exactly what Ten Hag had said not to do – and a promising possession spell came to nothing. Still, watch the clip carefully and you notice the pass is for Casemiro, who made a blind run into the box, losing a marker too caught up in what Antony does. This way it worked.
And you can imagine until the misplaced pass, Ten Hag was happy. After all, it wasn’t the first time he had seen Antoine’s trick. It wasn’t even the first time he had seen him this week. He did the same against Chelsea, except it was just one 360 spin this time around rather than two. He got used to it at Ajax too, as anyone who put together one of YouTube’s many highlights compilations during his move to Old Trafford will tell you.
Ten Hag has seen all of these tricks and tricks firsthand from the sidelines. He knew what he was getting when he encouraged the United hierarchy to ignore other options on the right and complete the club’s second most expensive signing in the final weeks of the summer transfer window. Since then, Antony has proven to be a talent but a raw talent, still only 22 years old, with plenty of room for improvement in several aspects of his all-around game.
One thing he does lack, however, is a certain swagger, and you don’t have to go too far back in United history to remember a time – successful, at that – when such swagger was n wasn’t considered a bad thing.
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