Back in February 2018, as Manchester United strolled to a 4-0 FA Cup fifth-round win over arch-rivals Arsenal, winger Nani decided to give the Old Trafford faithful a show. He had already scored once and set up another two goals for Darren Fletcher, but he had the audacity to rub salt in the away side’s wounds by producing a ‘seal dribble’ to evade Justin Hoyte in midfield.
Hoyte fell over in pursuit of Nani as he juggled the ball on his forehead, much to the home crowd's delight, and got up only to see the United star glide past him on the left-hand side and eventually win a throw-in.
Nani claimed after the match that Sir Alex Ferguson warned him to cut out the showboating, but when the winger’s compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo was accused of the same thing in a Champions League quarter-final tie against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico later that season, the United boss made his stance clear.
“We encourage it. We encourage it in all the players,” said Ferguson. “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.”Getty/GOAL
United’s latest flamboyant poster boy, £85-million summer signing Antony, also falls into that category.
The former Ajax star has made an instant impact at Old Trafford, becoming the first player to score in his first three Premier League appearances for United while making the coveted right-wing spot in the team his own.
In truth, supporters haven’t been treated to a player of his ilk since well before Ferguson’s exit in 2013. Antony is fearless, skillful and blessed with a ‘’wand’’ of a left foot, to quote former United defender Wes Brown.
Brown has even gone so far as to compare Antony with Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, which is obviously a huge stretch. But the Brazilian is certainly making a name for himself, not least for taking a leaf out of Nani’s book and engaging in an ostentatious display of artistry in the recent Europa League clash with Sheriff.
With the scoreline locked at 0-0 after 21 minutes, Antony received a pass on the right with his instep and proceeded to execute two full 360 spins on the spot before trying to play Casemiro through on goal.Getty/GOAL
Antony ambitious pass was overhit, and naturally, a debate was sparked over whether the showy move preceding it was necessary.
One time United academy prospect Robbie Savage certainly didn’t think so, as he said while commentating on the game for BT Sport: ''Well that for me is ridiculous. Because he’s done that and then he puts the ball out of play. Quite embarrassing actually, doing that with nobody near him.''
Club legend Paul Scholes went a step further in the studio at half-time, labelling Antony a ''clown'' before adding, ''I think he needs that knocking out of him''.
Antony did not return for the second half and United went on to win 3-0, but head coach Erik ten Hag claimed that his early withdrawal was ''more or less planned'' after the game.
The Dutchman also promised to ''correct'' Antony for his perceived showboating, albeit after first defending his right to express himself freely. "I do not have a problem with that, as long as it is functional,'' he said.
Ten Hag knew better than anyone the kind of player United were getting from Ajax, having overseen Antony's development at the Johan Cruiyff ArenA for the previous two years. Antony, too, knows exactly what he can and can’t get away with.
“We are known for our art,'' he wrote when responding his critics on Instagram. “And I won’t stop doing what got me to where I am!”
All football fans want to be entertained. Players like Antony are the ones that history remembers most fondly - for getting people off their seats and provoking an emotional response.Getty/GOAL
The penchant for theatricality is in Antony’s ''blood'', according to his United and Brazil national team colleague Fred, and it would be a tragedy if he were to be discouraged by those that want the game to be more black and white.
''It’s always been that way since Pele, to have quality, to dribble, to score, to dance, to smile,'' Fred continued when quizzed on Antony's spin against Sheriff. ''So I think people have to understand this aspect that we have. So it wasn’t offensive to anyone what he did.''
Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar, who has been perhaps the most extravagant forward of his generation, also backed his compatriot, writing on social media: "Keep it up, don’t change anything! Go for it boy! Boldness and joy."
Antony sat out United’s subsequent wins over West Ham and Real Sociedad through injury, but he didn’t need any respite from the pressures of English football. It is hoped that he will be fit to face Aston Villa on Sunday and unleash his trickery on the Premier League once more.Getty/GOAL
The 22-year-old is much more than simply the answer to United’s recent woes on the right of the attack, though. He is upholding the club’s core values, the same ones Ferguson championed throughout his glorious 23-year reign at Old Trafford.
Always strive for excellence and success, but do so with style and flair. Antony has both in abundance, and his rare talent should be treasured rather than prohibited.