ROBBIE FOWLER COLUMN: Erik ten Hag wants players who can easily fit into the style he wants to impose on his new team, and he’s happy to throw some real cash at his former club to get them
You know the one thing that stood out for me at the end of the transfer window? Erik ten Hag has total belief in himself.
If you’ll excuse the phrase, I believe he showed big balls by sticking to his guns – and sticking his neck right out – to push Manchester United into paying that unbelievable £86million fee for Antony.
My first reaction was, ‘Who in their right mind would sanction such a deal?’ With the add-ons, he could squeeze into the top 10 most expensive signings of all time. Let that sink in for a minute. And then be honest with me.
Had you even heard of him before this summer?
Yeah, of course, he’s a Brazil international, though he’s only made a couple of starts. And he’s had what seem like a couple of promising seasons in Holland with Ajax, scoring, what, 20 goals in 64 matches?
Look above him on that list of the world’s most expensive footballers though, and the names – apart from maybe Joao Felix – all stand out for a simple reason: they were already within the elite when they were sold.
Ronaldo, Neymar, Mbappe, Pogba, Bale, Hazard, Griezmann. Does Antony rate up there alongside that lot at the moment? C’mon. No chance. And it’s a hell of a lot of pressure to heap on a young player.
But it’s even more pressure for a manager to put himself under. It was a Ten Hag signing, absolutely no doubt.
Look at the players he’s brought in – and two come from his former club Ajax, yet another from Holland. He also went for Frenkie de Jong, who played for him at Ajax.
Hell, even Christian Eriksen played there, albeit it long before Ten Hag arrived.
What does that tell me? He wants players who can easily fit into the style he wants to impose on his new team, and he’s happy to throw some real cash at his former club to get them.
And it is real cash. Ten Hag has spent over £150m on the three players from Holland alone. If he’d got De Jong, that figure would have sailed past £200m.
Let’s just try to put it into perspective. He built a decent team at Ajax, no doubt – they even reached a Champions League semi-final under him.
But the Eredivisie is no Premier League. Look at how Rangers dumped Holland’s second-best team PSV out of the Champions League, and you say it is more on a par with the Scottish Premier… I wouldn’t totally rule out Celtic beating Ajax in Europe.
So there are no guarantees apart from the fact that if Antony is a flop like another United signing from Holland, Memphis Depay, then Ten Hag comes under massive pressure – as he’s made it so clear the lad was HIS signing.
United have thrown their own recruitment rule book out of the window. They were adamant they wouldn’t pay over the odds, adamant they wanted to concentrate on youthful signings.
What have United done? Overspent massively, and in the case of £60m for Casemiro, on a 30-year-old in his final few seasons. But it shows they are backing their manager.
And I kind of like that, even if I think they’ve had a chaotic and at times baffling transfer window. The truth is United were so far behind the rest of the big guns last season, that they needed something dramatic to compete this time.
They desperately need foundations, and in going crazy to back their manager, they’ve begun to lay them.
It’s one thing taking a gamble on a relatively untried Antony. It’s another thing that gamble paying out. If he performs like the players above him in that most expensive list, then it will be worth it. If not, then Ten Hag has made a rod for his own back.
Those foundations will take time to support a top-four challenge. I can’t see them getting past City, Liverpool, Spurs or Arsenal this season. But United clearly have a coach with strong enough self-belief. Signing Antony proved that beyond doubt.