As feats of escapology go, it ranked rather higher than finding a way out of Ajax when a fee of £85m was offered. Antony seemed trapped by the corner flag. Two defenders were converging on him. He faced the crowd, rather than his teammates, and the situation looked lost for a slight figure.
Until he conjured something, and almost a goal, out of nothing. He improvised a backheel to Diogo Dalot, the right-back crossed and Christian Eriksen’s volley flew just wide.
It was an act of impudence and not the only one. There were the flamboyant attempts to fool Oleksandr Zinchenko, waving a foot one way and the other while the Ukrainian watched a stationary ball. There was the bid to lob Aaron Ramsdale from 35 yards. It did not succeed, but it spoke of the confidence of a player undaunted by becoming the second-most expensive footballer in the history of the self-styled world’s biggest club.
It isn’t a guarantee of glory. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy all struck on their United bows; less auspiciously so did Alexander Buttner, Nick Powell, Josh Harrop and Dan James. Debuts can be deceptive and Donny van de Beek was the previous buy from Ajax to net on his first appearance.
But at a point when United’s wisdom was questioned, with even Ajax seeming to deem the sums excessive while they pocketed them, it offered a reminder. Transfer fees matter more when transfers don’t work out, when replacements are soon needed, when losses to offload misfits are calculated when spots in the side become problem positions. One game does not render Antony a success but a first goal was well taken.
A calm, curled shot was an advertisement for the inverted winger, Antony meeting Rashford’s pass with a first-time finish. As the Arsenal defence were dragged inside, he had waited on the fringes of the action. He was decisive and then delighted. A badge-kissing celebration in front of the Arsenal fans may have been designed to endear him to the United support.
He had waited for the moment, though: not merely for the 35 minutes of the game, but amid a summer of interest, culminating in a price tag that added to the pressure.
When he departed, he was replaced by Cristiano Ronaldo.
They are side by side in another respect. Antony is the 13th-most expensive player ever, separating Ronaldo from Ronaldo in the charts and denying Ronaldo a first start under Ten Hag.
If the Portuguese, in his first stint, represents United’s greatest buy on the right wing and Bebe still remains the strangest, Antony is a curiosity, not least because of how he became valued so highly.
The only three more costly buys ever in the Premier League are Jack Grealish, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, a trio whose experiences may not offer sufficient encouragement. Antony’s arrival was a show of faith in Ten Hag: United authorised a fee that amounted to the combined cost of Erling Haaland and Sadio Mane, who offer rather more pedigree.
But Antony has captured the zeitgeist. This is part of the Antonification of the Premier League. It is the invasion of the Anthonys, in their various guises. Saturday featured an opener by (Michail) Antonio, a winner for (Jaidon) Anthony and a hat-trick for (Ivan) Toney. Ten Hag brought in Antony for Anthony (Elanga) while he waits for Anthony (Martial) to return to fitness. The Theatre of Dreams has become the theatre of Anthonys.
But United’s recruitment strategy has been based less on a name than a country: the Netherlands. Ten Hag’s faith in the familiar and the Eredivisie alumni is being vindicated.
If part of Antony’s purpose is to make Lisandro Martinez look tall when they lined up together, the Argentinian, who was troubled in his first two games, again looked a fighter. Tyrell Malacia’s speed and combativity offer echoes of Patrice Evra. Eriksen has lent class to a midfield in which Scott McTominay clattered around clumsily, half a second late for everything.
Eriksen was wonderful. His pass to Bruno Fernandes led to Rashford’s first goal; he earned the assist for his second himself. A free transfer, he is proof United can get value for money.
Understandably, Antony is not yet. In time, his aversion to using his right foot may make him predictable, though he can jink infield at will.
For €100m, United might have wanted a two-footed player. They will get a sharper one. It was only Antony’s third game since March and if, after opting out of two Ajax matches, he is a reason for that, it was understandable he was the first player substituted. Some judgements should be postponed until he is in peak condition.
At the start, as Gabriel Martinelli was electric, Antony did not even look the best Brazilian winger on the pitch. But the Arsenal forward had a goal chalked off. His United counterpart’s strike stood and the age of Antony was off to a winning start.