Manchester United were faster, sharper, smarter and classier than Nottingham Forest in this seventh consecutive victory over their visitors. It was approaching the full performance: a mixture of measured attacks and quick breaks and the constant harassment of an opponent who ended up exhausted and demoralized.
Considering United had only scored 20 premier league kick-off goals and finances are tight in January to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, a strike from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial before Fred’s last striker was as invigorating as the three points that kept them on the heels of Tottenham.
Freedom is one more adjective to describe how, 23 years after United thrashed Forest 8-1 at the City Ground (Ole Gunnar Solskjær scoring four in 10 minutes), this Erik ten Hag side applied similar schooling to this which was, for most contests, a classic Mancunian night in the rain.
Of that first Premier League outing after the World Cup, Ten Hag said: “You always wonder after a break what the restart will be – the back four have never played together and a player who has never played in the centre-back position… and if you win three don’t concede a goal, you’re happy with the performance.
Luke Shaw lined up the excellent Raphaël Varane against a Forest team which had won its last three matches (two in the Coupe de la Ligue): their best run of the campaign.
The streak looked likely to end the moment United started rolling the ball. Rashford, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes and Aaron Wan-Bissaka spun Forest out of position and came close to scoring after Christian Eriksen joined them.
A dominant criticism of United over the past decade has been how they are primarily a counter-attacking proposition and therefore another Rashford-Wan-Bissaka model which has again pinged the latter – towards Martial – offered additional encouragement.
The opener came from a corner on the right. Eriksen’s delivery – rolled on the turf – came straight out of the coaches playbook and there was Rashford to hammer home for a fifth in the competition.
United’s No.10 may be in career form – as evidenced by his next act. This time he became creative, slipping a clever pass to Martial who, from a distance, pulled the trigger. Hennessey dove low and right and knocked the ball down the line for five appearances in nine for the No.9.
Rashford was endemic. A bull run drew a yellow card, before a backheel, a feathery touch and an incisive charge that made Renan Lodi an amateur were further threatening bursts. “I appreciate it,” he said. “Every striker always has a number they want to try and hit, and mine is to score more than ever before in a season – that’s 22.”
Also impressive was the hunt Forest received from United at any time of possession – Casemiro, Varane and Eriksen often hunting in packs. Yet now Willy Boly got the final touch on a free-kick from Lodi to score. But, in the scrum, Ryan Yates’ header had hit the centre-back’s leg and, following one of those centuries-old VAR delays, it was blamed on the Ivory Coast’s offside.
United had 69.5% possession at half-time. It was definitely their match to close at a gallop. The unplayable Rashford then appeared on the left and, using Martial’s run as a decoy, laid the ball at Fernandes’ feet. He tapped it well and Antony, who rushes, should not have allowed Hennessey to fend off his shot from close range. Martial, too, hit Hennessey’s legs – Fernandes again the provider – as United played Cooper’s men.
Donny van de Beek, off the bench, fired a shot from Remo Freuler, Fernandes tried to lob Hennessey from halfway, and Alejandro Garnacho (another substitute) tore on the left: it was a joyous demonstration. Then comes the third: Casemiro drives the ball towards Fred and another of the manager’s substitutes scores. “The disappointment is my reflection,” said Forest manager Steve Cooper.