Manchester United in the Champions League driver’s seat with Casemiro providing route guidance

Marcus Rashford scores for Manchester United against Nottingham Forest Credit: Alamy

Manchester United did not have too much difficulty in seeing off a lukewarm Nottingham Forest, with Casemiro adding a sense of calm to their midfield.

It gets tight at the top. After their 3-0 win against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford, Manchester United are just one point off fourth place in the Premier League and just four points off Newcastle United in second place. They are still 11 behind Arsenal, but a comfortable win against approachable but ultimately quite dogged opposition with a few key players missing told us more than anything else that this United is a team heading in the right direction.

Manchester United are better than last season, but it’s a bar so low they’ll have to go into limbo not to clear it. They remain capable of overwhelming, which is the latest example came to Villa Park in their penultimate Premier League game, but it has looked like there is finally a plan at Old Trafford. Erik ten Hag has improved players whose careers seemed in danger of stalling, while newcomers have been successfully integrated.

Clearly, the biggest cause of contention throughout the first half of this season, the distraction they could have done without, has now burned his bridges and is gone. Their transfer deals have been good, even if they didn’t land the one player they sought more than any other over the summer. There is an element of uncertainty surrounding the club’s future as to who the new owners might be, but it does not appear to be a quick process. They are still a little way from being the finished article, but they are heading in the right direction and Arsenal have already demonstrated this season how quickly fortunes can turn in the modern game if you are smart enough in the transfer market .

Nottingham Forest went into the mid-winter break on a slight upswing, taking seven points from their last four games before all broke up with a draw against Brentford and wins against Liverpool and Crystal Palace. They needed them. Even this, helped by results elsewhere, had left them a place off the bottom of the Premier League, with only crisis club du jour Southampton below them.

It’s easy to criticize Forest for their unique decision to bring in 23 new players over the summer, but we’re now nearing the halfway point in the Premier League and while they had looked a bit more coherent before mid-season, they remain too prone to fundamental collective lapses. Forest’s defense did this twice midway through the first half, the defense fell asleep at a corner and were caught on the break with an attack that came at them like a hot knife through butter.

Manchester United’s two goals in the first half were a combination of the beautifully integrated and the revitalized. Christian Eriksen’s low corner was met by a fine side-footed shot for Marcus Rashford after some training on the training ground for the first goal. Casemiro’s tackle and pass started the move that released Rashford down the left to find Anthony Martial for the second. But United remain a work in progress and they let Forest back in the latter stages of the first half, leading to a joy-sucking wait for a VAR decision when Ryan Yates’ downward header beat an offside Willy Boly and in. took a long time to get around to being given but at least it was correct.

Much of the second half was played at a slower pace. Forest had not scored an away goal in the Premier League since August 20. The likelihood of them clawing back a two-goal deficit was virtually non-existent, certainly after Yates’ goal was disallowed. But they didn’t fold. In fact, they gave as good as they got at times in the second half, especially in its opening stages.

But for all that Forest didn’t play too badly, they rarely really threatened throughout the second half and played against a Manchester United side who seemed fairly content with what they had. With three minutes to play Casemiro, the player who more than any other has brought a sense of calm to United’s defensive midfield this season, slipped an absolutely perfect pass through the Forest defense for Fred to snuff out any remaining hopes of the improbable.

This wasn’t quite the break Forest got at Manchester City, Leicester or Arsenal and perhaps it would have been optimistic ever to think 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 they cannot afford to keep doing.

It’s not hard to see how their goal difference is six worse than anyone else’s in the entire division. A defense is a team within a team. When you build a complete 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 small as they are in the elite of professional sports, moments like f .eg that at the corner from which Manchester United scored their opening goal in this match will normally be penalized. Can this be fixed by spending even more money in the January transfer window? It seems doubtful; as always this season, feel a decent Nottingham Forest team just out of reach.

But Manchester United are coming together. There was a time not too long ago when every United game felt like an exhibition of self-loathing, a team that found new ways to scrape deeper and deeper barrels seemingly on a weekly basis. That is certainly not the case anymore. The head coach seems to be the right man for the job. He brings out the best in players who had previously underperformed for significant periods. And when they sign players like Casemiro, who is arguably one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, they go into 2023 looking ahead rather than nervously over their shoulders. The title may be beyond them this season, but a top four finish looks very possible and that alone is a significant upgrade in time.

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