Tearing up the Eredivisie: why Antony might be Ajax’s next-best South American export
The São Paulo region of Brazil has been home to some incredible footballing talents over the year. Kaká, Oscar, Lucas, are just a few of the noteworthy recent names to come from the Southern state in Brazil, and Antony could follow in their footsteps by making the move into Europe’s top five leagues in the coming years.
For now, Ajax have got their hands on the 21-year-old and he is currently tearing it up in Holland. Already from his time in Brazil, Antony has been linked in a move to London, via either Arsenal or Chelsea. Only a year ago, Antony was a raw talent coming out of the Brasileirão, but his game as come so far even since then, and in this analysis, we will detail how much he has improved in that time.
Antony began his football career with Grêmio, where he would learn the basics, until the age of 12, he would join São Paulo. The 21-year-old grew up in the favelas, and he had to endure plenty of difficult challenges growing up which many of his sheltered peers did not. He would sign his first senior contract in 2018, where he excelled immediately and garnered the interest of those within and outside of Brazil. Antony has gone on record to express his gratitude to his head coach at São Paulo, Fernando Diniz, for believing in his natural ability.
That natural ability is easy to view, and there is a sense that much of Antony’s best work is instinctive. Whilst this does come with an air of inefficiency, it is supremely entertaining, nonetheless. Antony is best described as a creative playmaker who operates on the right-wing. As a natural left-footer, his preference is to cut inside into the right half-space and whip a ball to the far post, feeding Sébastien Haller, or pop a shot on goal himself. He is a confident player, there are no doubts in his self-belief, in a very positive manner.
Standing at 5’9” / 175cm, Antony possesses a very good balance, and his lower body strength allows him to be very agile. He currently plays on the right of Ten Haag’s 4-3-3 system. Antony has spent time out on the left as well, but it is fair to say his best work comes on the right-hand side, where he can pull off his signature move – stop on a dime, accelerate into the half-space and past the defender, and either shoot or pass. He is a very decisive player; he knows what he wants to do with the ball before he receives it.
Antony player profile, created by the wonderful Sathish Prasad (@SathishPrasadVT on Twitter).
Antony’s positioning and dribbling
Antony is a pure winger by trade. As we can see from his heatmap in the player profile above, even as a left-footer, he spends a good proportion of his time on the ball in wide-right zones. He gains momentum by moving inwards, taking on his opponent 1v1, and driving into the penalty area, usually arriving at the right half-space. He causes a sort-of predictable chaos that you just cannot stop.
Scatter plot of Eredivisie wingers’ dribbles per 90 compared with successful dribbles %.
Antony has posted some incredibly dribbling numbers in his time at Ajax so far. 8.53 dribbles per 90 is one of the highest figures in the division, and not many can match his success rate at that volume either. It is his port of call whenever he receives the ball, typically high and wide up the right flank. Almost always dribbling from a stand-still, it is his explosive acceleration that aids him in bursting past opponents.
In these moments, even under heavy opposition pressure, Antony will look to remain on his feet if he can. In the modern game, this will reduce the likelihood of winning dangerous free-kicks and penalties for his side, but it is indicative of his hunger to keep going. 3.05 progressive runs per 90 represents the advancements that Antony tries to make up the pitch when he gets up the ball.
Antony positions himself in a wide-right zone in the build-up phase, and here he is just about to receive the long ball.
Antony cuts back and drives into the box, looking to swing a delivery to the far post.
Antony is a player who is full of tricks and flicks up his sleeve. In Brazil, he relied on his flair and finesse to take the ball past his opponent and get him into space where he can produce some devastating moments. In the Netherlands, he has still produced these flashes of individual brilliance, but he is far less reliant on them. He is much more mature in his dribbling antics now, whilst still retaining that unpredictable streak.
Again, in a wide-right zone, Antony receives the ball and produces a bit of flair to take it past the opposite full-back.
In terms of positioning, Antony places himself in wide zones out of possession almost all the time. Even when the team shifts across the left side of the pitch, Antony will remain the widest player for Ajax when they are trying to recover possession. This means that Antony is almost always in space, and he will largely do his utmost to evade his marker when he is angled out of the game.
Here, Antony has made serious headway towards the byline, but still checks back inside, despite there being a good opportunity to keep moving vertically and exploit the space.
Antony is just a joy to watch on the field. He has an exquisite first-touch (for the most part), which has allowed him to get the edge over opposition defenders. We saw this very early on his Ajax career in a pre-season match versus Hertha Berlin, where he received the ball, hooked it in between his feet and span on the spot to keep the ball away from his marker, Maximilian Mittelstadt.
Antony’s finishing hot streak
It is fair to say that Antony’s current finishing rate is unsustainable. It will cool eventually (it already has in recent weeks), but his confidence has allowed him to score from areas under heavy pressure without a worry. While others may be put off their strike, it seems that Antony is unphased in most of these situations. His finishing is also underpinned by his good striking technique from a favourable angle for a left-footed right-winger.
Scatter plot of Eredivisie wingers’ xG per 90 compared with goals per 90.
As we can see above, Antony is finishing well above expected rates. His 0.5 goals per 90 well outreaches his 0.22 xG per 90, and this will level out over time. Part of the reason why his xG numbers are average is due to his decision-making. He is a decisive player, but often frustratingly so. He still quite frequently shoots from speculative zones, and a majority of his efforts come from sub-optimal locations.
Off-balance, with two opponents in front of him, Antony still decides to take the shot on goal, rather than pass to a nearby teammate.
When he does shoot, it is backed by striking confidence, powerful and well-refined technique. Par for the course when shooting from the right as a left-footer, he will wrap his boot around the ball, curling inwards when letting loose on the net. This means that when aiming for the far corner, which Antony often does, the ball is curling towards the palm of the keeper, but his precision often enables the Brazilian to evade any consequences.
Though, in these situations, Antony’s one-footedness is never more evident. 45 of Antony’s 50 shots in the Eredivisie this season have come from his left foot, with only 2 off his right, and 3 with his head. He checks back inside with frequency, after charging down the line when he initially receives the ball. To aid this, Antony’s constantly drops the shoulder and explodes into another direction to enter the zones he wants to get to.
Many of Antony’s goals have been predicated by his good movement, as we can see here.
Antony checks back inside and finesses a shot into the bottom left corner.
On the transition, thanks to his cool first-touch and livewire acceleration, Antony is absolutely devastating on the break. Following a short turnover in possession, the Brazilian is one of the first players to be zooming up the pitch, waiting for the through pass to find his path. With time on his side, the 21-year-old remains impressively composed, and will often gobble up these opportunities if given the chance.
On the break, Antony can be devastating. His pace is enough to take him past the majority of opponents.
His hype might be currently overstated thanks to his overperformance in front of goal, but Antony certainly has qualities that many attackers do not at his age. To have the composure to finish off some of these unlikely chances at 20 years old mainly is rather impressive. You would be hard-pressed to name another rookie who has adapted better to the league this season than Antony, and that is a massive credit to his fierce mentality.
Antony’s creative spark
First and foremost, however, the Brazilian is a creative winger, or at least this is where he provides his greatest value. We have discussed how hard he is to stop in full flow, but when his Ajax teammates keep up with his pace, they can help him make his efforts worth his while. He draws attention on the ball, creating space for others, and he can just as easily shimmy space for himself to pass, which makes for a devastating quality.
Scatter plot of Eredivisie wingers’ xA per 90 compared with assists per 90.
Antony is surrounded by a plethora of talent, in Eredivisie terms. This is especially the case since Sébastien Haller returned to the division, joining Ajax in January. Earning bang-on double the number of assists that Antony should have expected by this point, the Brazilian should anticipate his teammates going through their own barren runs in front of the goal before the season ends. Or at minimum, see their finishing returns reduce.
Again, in scenarios where Antony looks to create, he is mercilessly predictable. Yet, his opponents have found him tricky to block off. From the same position which he shoots, a small segment within the right half-space, the 21-year-old will lift his frame and float a delivery towards the far post, now aiming for Haller – previously Lassina Traoré. This pattern has become mechanical for Antony – the accuracy of these crosses are sharp.
On the edge of the penalty area, Antony aims to find Huntelaar in the six-yard-box.
He finds Huntelaar with precision and he dispatches the opportunity.
In more ways than one, but especially so in a creative sense, Antony is reminiscent of the player he has replaced at Ajax: Hakim Ziyech. Which, it should be noted, is fantastic recruitment from Ajax. His methods of chance creation are high-risk, high-reward. Although his crosses are cultured efforts, underpinned by good technique, they can frustrate just as much as they can fascinate, which you hope should improve over time, with regards to the success rate.
Antony cuts back in as he usually does and sends a lofty delivery towards the path of Dušan Tadić.
Antony is also an intelligent creator as well. Although his far-post deliveries are by far his most common choice of chance creation, he has demonstrated other creative qualities. The quality and weight of his through passes is quite remarkable for a player of his age. He has shown an ability to hit angled passes around the corner too, bending away from his opponent, and into the path of a forward.
As with his shooting principle, Antony largely creates chances from his left foot. This will force opponents, as they typically do against Ajax, to pack their defensive third and congest the penalty area with defenders. However, the quality of his deliveries has counteracted that this season, mixed with the aerial presence of some of Ajax’s forwards, especially Haller now.
Forecast for the future
Antony’s start to life in the Eredivisie has been nothing short of sensational. 8 goals and 8 assists in just under 1400 minutes is a fabulous return, even for an Ajax team who romp this division. If he can improve his decision-making, Antony has the potential to be a 20+ goal per season forward in this league in the near future, which would certainly attract the interest of Europe’s elite.
The immediate goal for the 21-year-old is to break into the Brazil squad, which he is surely on the precipice of. Of course, in the long-term, the aim is not to stay with Ajax forever, and he will move on eventually. See out next season and reconvene as to which destination next is best for his future – he must be wise with his choice of a team in Europe’s top five leagues. He would suit a team who do their best work on the break and rely on a fast attacking unit: for these types of sides, he could be absolutely devastating.