Manchester United in the Champions League driving seat with Casemiro giving directions
Manchester United didn’t have too many difficulties in seeing off a tepid Nottingham Forest, with Casemiro adding a sense of calm to their midfield.
It’s getting tight at the top. Following their 3-0 win against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford, Manchester United are just a point off fourth place in the Premier League and are just four points off second-placed Newcastle United. They’re still 11 behind Arsenal, but a comfortable win against accommodating but ultimately fairly doughty opposition with a couple of key players missing told us more than anything else that this United are a team heading in the right direction.
Manchester United are better than last season, but that’s a bar so low they’d need to limbo to not clear it. They remain capable of underwhelming, the latest example of which came at Villa Park in their penultimate Premier League game, but it has looked as though there is finally a plan at Old Trafford. Erik ten Hag has improved players whose careers had seemed at risk of stalling completely, while new arrivals have been successfully integrated.
Obviously, the biggest cause of strife throughout the first half of this season, the distraction they could have done without, has now burned his bridges and left. Their transfer dealings have been good, even if they didn’t get the one player they sought more than any other during the summer. There is an element of uncertainty surrounding the club’s future over who the new owners might be, but that seems unlikely to be a quick process. They’re still a little way of being the finished article, but they’re heading in the right direction and Arsenal have already demonstrated this season how quickly fortunes can turn in the modern game if you’re canny enough in the transfer market.
Nottingham Forest went into the midwinter break on a slight upturn, taking seven points from their last four games before everybody broke up with a draw against Brentford and wins against Liverpool and Crystal Palace. They needed them. Even this, with the assistance of results elsewhere, had left them one place off the bottom of the Premier League, with only crisis club du jour Southampton below them.
It’s easy to criticise Forest for their unique decision to bring in 23 new players over the course of the summer, but we’re now approaching the halfway point in the Premier League and although they had been looking slightly more cohesive before the mid-season, they remain too prone to basic collective lapses. Forest’s defence did this twice by the midway point in the first half, the defence falling asleep at a corner and getting caught on the break with an attack that came at them like a hot knife through butter.
Manchester United’s two first-half goals were a combination of the nicely integrated and the revitalised. Christian Eriksen’s low corner was met by a fine side-foot shot for Marcus Rashford following some training ground chicanery for the first goal. Casemiro’s tackle and pass started the move that released Rashford on the left to find Anthony Martial for the second. But United do remain a work in progress and they allowed Forest back into the latter stages of the first half, leading to a joy-sucking wait for a VAR decision when Ryan Yates’ downward header flicked off an offside Willy Boly and in. The decision took a long time to get round to being given, but it was at least correct.
Much of the second half was played at a slower pace. Forest hadn’t scored an away goal in the Premier League since August 20. The likelihood of them pulling back a two-goal deficit was practically non-existent, certainly after Yates’ goal was disallowed. But they didn’t fold. Indeed, they gave as good as they got for periods in the second half, particularly in its opening stages.
But for all that Forest didn’t play that badly, they seldom truly threatened throughout the second half and were playing a Manchester United team who seemed fairly content with what they had. With three minutes to play Casemiro, the player who more than anybody else has brought a sense of calm to United’s defensive midfield this season, slid an absolutely perfect pass through the Forest defence for Fred to extinguish any remaining hopes of the improbable.
This wasn’t quite the mauling that Forest got at Manchester City, Leicester or Arsenal, and perhaps it would have been optimistic to ever believe that they could ever have taken a win from this game. But while they played OK throughout the second half, those moments of collective defensive lapse are simply something that they cannot afford to keep doing.
It’s not difficult to see how their goal difference is six worse than anybody else’s in the entire division. A defence is a team within a team. When you build a complete playing squad from scratch, the players involved will take a while to know what the rest are doing at any given moment, and when the margins are as tiny as they are at the elite end of professional sport, moments such as that at the corner from which Manchester United scored their opening goal in this game will usually be punished. Can this be fixed by spending even more money in the January transfer window? It seems doubtful; as ever this season, a decent Nottingham Forest team feels just out of reach.
But Manchester United are coming together. There was a time not so long ago when every United game felt like an exhibition of self-loathing, a team finding new ways to scrape deeper and deeper barrels on an apparently weekly basis. That is certainly no longer the case. The head coach seems to be the right man for the job. He’s bringing out the best in players who had previously been underperforming for substantial periods of time. And in bringing in players such as Casemiro, who probably is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, they head into 2023 looking forward rather than nervously over their shoulders. The title may be beyond them this season, but a top four finish seems very possible, and that alone is a substantial upgrade on time around.