Home to 700,000 people, Osasco – a city in Brazil’s Greater São Paulo region – shares a similar population density to Tokyo and New York City. Its motto, ‘Urbs labor’, literally translates from Latin as ‘work city’.
It is the place AFC Ajax’s Antony calls home. Eryck Gomes’ 2020 interview with the Brazilian winger in The Guardian outlined just how difficult Antony’s upbringing was.
Famed blockbuster movie City of God depicts a young photographer learning the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and while the cities may differ, there are plenty of similarities between the art and reality of Antony’s own favela upbringing.
He recounts rubbing shoulders with drug runners and witnessing police raids, as well as borrowing football boots from the shoe shop his mother worked at – an entirely different life to the sheltered academy education of his European peers.
At age 12, he joined the São Paulo setup, where he would sign his first senior contract in September 2018. It was later that year playing in Copiñha, a football tournament for all youth teams in the São Paulo area, that he truly emerged as a precocious talent. 120 clubs took part, and yet Antony emerged as Player of the Tournament, scoring four goals and registering six assists on the way to São Paulo securing the title. His four strikes came in the final two outings of the competition, including a hat-trick against Guaraní in the last four.
Antony is immensely grateful to São Paulo head coach Fernando Diniz for believing in his natural ability and affording him the freedom to play his game. Ultimately, it was that belief that earned him his European move and a route to the upper-echelons of world football which he will undoubtedly surmount. Last year, both Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea entertained the prospect of signing him, but Ajax swooped, sealing a deal for the 20-year-old last February.
Antony's style of play
The Brazilian is an inventive and intelligent player. His signing from São Paulo was hailed as a repeat of the David Neres transfer some years earlier, but in practice, Antony is more comparable to the recently departed Hakim Ziyech.
With eight goals and eight assists in his first 1,200 Eredivisie minutes, there is unlikely to be a better rookie in the Dutch top-flight this season. Antony has taken to life excellently at Ajax, and has his gifted left foot to thank.
Much of the time, Antony enjoys hanging wide on the right so he can gain momentum after picking up the ball by driving inwards. His acceleration from a standing start is explosive; his elite balance and lower body strength allows him to remain on his feet even under heavy pressure – he is a worker with great endeavour, the type of player to clean up his own mess.
In Brazil, Antony relied more on ingenuity to create his moments, and there is still an element of that to his game. Now though, after just a matter of months in Europe, he plays with a calculating maturity and sensibility, while retaining that endearing unpredictable streak.
It is perhaps misleading to describe him as capricious, when one of Antony’s most prominent moves has delivered goals on multiple occasions already for Ajax. On his left foot, in a tiny segment of the pitch in the right-hand half-space just outside the penalty area, Antony likes to bend in floated crosses to the far post.
At any time, he is likely to be servicing Lassina Traoré and now Sébastien Haller – a decent set of targets for any crosser. His command over the ball is masterful, the swing of his leg and shaping of his body illustrative of well-cultured muscle memory. It is a useful tool to have against sides intent on packing their own defensive third and congesting central areas.
For a player of such stature and speed, it would be easy to assume he is obsessed with the by-line. But his relative one-footedness – 41 of his first 45 shots in the Eredivisie were taken with his left – means he much prefers to check back inside. At Ajax, Antony is faced with a medium-to-low block and almost always slows to a stand-still after racing onto the ball.
Sending him down the line often results in him turning back and Ajax resetting their attack. To combat this, he has developed a sharp drop of the shoulder which, combined with his explosiveness and close control, makes him difficult to stop from going inside.
Sébastien Haller's move to AFC Ajax could be huge for Antony.— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) January 7, 2021
The Brazilian makes a habit of crossing deep into the penalty area from this position just outside the penalty area. He's already serviced Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lassina Traoré multiple times this season. pic.twitter.com/PAMHhZbCxV
Antony has been decisive in his early days at Ajax, outperforming his expected goals and posting incredible dribbling numbers – astoundingly high in both volume and success rate. While his hot finishing streak may cool, it is largely underpinned by well-placed shots from range under little pressure.
While he has somewhat dialled back the speculative shooting – par for the course in South America – Antony still attempts a fair portion of his shots from less-than-efficient areas, which is another similarity with the departed Ziyech. This is underpinned by his inherent confidence in his ability, though: his shots in general are well-refined, powerful and testament to strong technique.
Closer to goal, he is yet again very decisive, which frustrates and encourages. With better decision-making, he could easily be a 15-20 goal-a-season attacker. In a more transition-oriented team, he could be devastating too. Five of his first seven Ajax goals were scored on the break or shortly following a turnover in possession. He is a very good player to have in a reactionary sense.
Forecasting Antony's future prospects
Antony’s adaptation to the Netherlands has caught everybody by surprise. Seventeen goal involvements in the equivalent of 19 full games across all competitions is some going, even for a leading Ajax team.
He is not yet a full international with Brazil, but that will surely have been rectified by the time 2021 is out. In Richarlison, Tite already employs a hard-working wide forward in his Brazil setup – Antony has the potential to be just as arduously effective in an attacking sense.
As with most Ajax players under the age of 25, the Johan Cruijff Arena will not be the last stop on the Antony Express. Slotting into elite European competition without skipping a beat is a sure-fire way of alerting Europe’s financially well-endowed sporting directors. Ziyech left Amsterdam at 27 years old for €40 million, but quite easily could have departed at various points in previous years. Clubs may not be as hesitant with Antony; it would be no surprise to see him leave for a similar figure, and certainly before he reaches Ziyech’s age.
Antony is a fast, direct and decisive right winger with an excellent left foot. He’s a tricky dribbler that also contributes in the final third, as a creator off crosses and a shooter after cutting inside.
Antony can be too decisive, taking too many shots from low percentage areas. If he improves his decision-making in his final action, he will be a high-level player.