As Erik ten Hag sat down for his news conference at Manchester United‘s Carrington training ground on Wednesday afternoon, he told reporters he wasn’t in a position to talk much about prospective new €95 million signing Antony until the paperwork was completed.
His smile, though, said everything. By that point, he already knew he had his man and that his personal battle to get the deal over the line was won.
It has been a largely positive summer window for Man United, and their new manager is the big winner. The club have never spent more — upward of £225 million (€261m) — in a single summer and, crucially, Ten Hag has been backed to bring in his players.
Antony (officially announced on Friday) and Lisandro Martinez were part of Ten Hag’s squad at Ajax Amsterdam. Defender Tyrell Malacia was a player he knew all about from his time at rivals Feyenoord, while Christian Eriksen was invited to train with Ajax last season as he continued his recovery from a heart condition.
Throw in five-time Champions League winning midfielder Casemiro (signed from Real Madrid for €70m) and experienced goalkeeper Martin Dubravka on loan from Newcastle United, it’s little wonder Ten Hag is a happy man.
“I analysed the squad with a clear vision, but we were on [the same page] from the first talks I had with the club,” he said on Wednesday. “They also saw the same, which positions we definitely had to strengthen. I am happy in those positions, we analysed the squad and succeeded in filling in with quality players.”
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Ten Hag has got almost everything he wanted this summer, but it has also been a window (also dominated by the saga of Cristiano Ronaldo ultimately staying put) that has, at times, appeared haphazard and reflected what has been a struggle for authority behind the scenes.
In the end, United have signed more players and spent more money than they originally planned, and much of that has been down to Ten Hag’s own persistence. Sources have told ESPN that, more than once, the club were keen to walk away from negotiations with Ajax regarding Antony. The Brazil winger was a player identified as a possible target as early as March, but Ajax’s valuation of more than €80m made the deal problematic from the start.
It was agreed that other attacking options would be considered with Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram put forward by the recruitment department, and PSV’s Cody Gakpo, who shares an agency with Ten Hag, proposed by the manager.
Deals for each were discussed internally, but Ten Hag insisted Antony was still the best fit and implored the club to go back to the negotiating table. By that point Ajax felt emboldened to ask for more — in part to cover solidarity payments owed to Antony’s former clubs — having already raised more than €116m in outgoings. United saw an €80m bid rejected and when an improved €90m offer was also turned down, recruitment chiefs wanted to end negotiations.
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It was only after Ten Hag stepped in again that an agreement was reached for an initial €95m with another €5m in add-ons to make Antony the second-most-expensive signing in the club’s history behind Paul Pogba when he arrived from Juventus in 2016 for €105m.
With Antony and Martinez in particular, United have backed the manager’s judgement — ironically a policy they said they would move away from as sources termed some of Louis van Gaal’s recruitment decisions “a disaster.”
Van Gaal was parachuted into a system of signing players that former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward later admitted was “not fit for purpose.” Van Gaal was made central to the club’s transfer strategy when he became manager in 2014 and used his power to sign players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Daley Blind and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Woodward was so scarred by the experience that he introduced a veto system that gave the recruitment department, scouts and the manager equal voting rights before making a signing. It was the reason manager Jose Mourinho was unsuccessful in his attempts to bring Jerome Boateng to Old Trafford at the end of the 2018 summer window and why Ralf Rangnick was foiled in his attempts to sign a striker in January.
United insist players like Martinez and Antony were already being watched closely before Ten Hag arrived, but there is no escaping the sense that the club’s window has been heavily influenced by the Dutchman’s wishes.
Sources have told ESPN that there were initially reservations about his plan to sign another centre-back just 12 months after the club had spent €48m on Raphael Varane‘s transfer from Real Madrid.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Manchester United’s attacking line up as Antony prepares to join from Ajax.
The squad Ten Hag inherited also included Harry Maguire (signed in 2019 for £80m), Victor Lindelof (signed in 2017 for £31m) and Eric Bailly (signed in 2016 for £30m and handed a new long-term contract in April 2021), and there was a feeling from within the club that this summer’s budget would be better used elsewhere. But Ten Hag insisted he needed a left-footed central defender to implement his style of play and, in the face of competition from Arsenal, Martinez arrived for a fee of €57m that could rise to €67m through variables.
Bailly, who is under contract at United until at least 2024, was jettisoned to make room for Martinez, while left-back Alex Telles, who arrived only in 2020, was sent on loan to Sevilla after Malacia arrived.
Ten Hag, however, hasn’t had everything his own way. Plans to sign Bologna’s 33-year-old forward Marko Arnautovic, a player he knew from his time at FC Twente, were scrapped following fan opposition. He was also rebuffed in his attempts to firm up interest in another one of his former Ajax players, Chelsea‘s Hakim Ziyech, while his top summer target, Frenkie de Jong — another Ajax alum — remains at Barcelona.
Sources have told ESPN that club chiefs accept they should have walked away from talks with De Jong earlier than they did. Casemiro, a recruitment department choice, was viewed as an acceptable alternative by Ten Hag — even though it was not in the original plan to sign players 30 or over — because the need for a No. 6 to bolster the midfield was considered vital.
Early defeats to Brighton and Brentford (especially that 4-0 humiliation), rather than weakening Ten Hag’s position, provided him with only more evidence that the squad was in dire need of reinforcements.
How fruitful this summer has been for United will only become apparent later down the line, and they will know, more than most, that big money doesn’t always equal big success. The jury is out on the new arrivals, but not when it comes to the influence Ten Hag is already wielding at Old Trafford. His smile said it all.