Sports

Man Utd and Erik ten Hag are trapped in a miserable loop

Ten Hag repeatedly talks about what Manchester United are not, but we see too little of what they are

December 30, 2023 8:06 pm

Nottingham Forest 2-1 Manchester United (Dominguez 64′, Gibbs-White 82′ | Rashford 78′)

THE CITY GROUND — One step forward, two more back. If Erik ten Hag keeps up this pitiful dance then he will soon shift any Christmas excess, but he might not be Manchester United manager for much longer.

This week, Ten Hag insisted that Ineos, the club’s new minority shareholders, are looking forward to working with him. That’s probably dependent on certain factors that look shaky as United end the year.

Nottingham Forest were one team who United dominated home and away last season, but nothing good lasts long around this squad. If the home win over Aston Villa demonstrated United’s stomach for recovery, there’s only so many times you can hope to roll a dice and get the number you’re after.

Ten Hag’s team did indeed play when they were behind again, although they were gifted a goal by a goalkeeper in Matt Turner who we may not see again in Forest red for some time. The January transfer window opens shortly and Evangelos Marinakis will be seeking someone who can kick the ball without shinning it up in the air or passing it to an opponent.

But Manchester United, cannot, will not, always get out of jail. They were given 10 minutes extra at the end of the 90, to the astonishment of the City Ground. They were handed a lifeline. They were shown that, if they attacked Forest then they would be successful. And still they failed. It is some effort to lose a game once so miserably with these players against a team just outside the bottom three. It is another entirely to lose it twice.

The defending for the second goal was appalling. One clearance found Forest with four against three. Even then, when players sprinted back they ran beyond the ball and so left Morgan Gibbs-White free on the edge of the box. His finish – low, curled, powerful, into the corner – was superb. But good teams don’t leave opponents in five yards of space to shoot twice in the space of 18 minutes.

We have to credit Forest, who have already found a formula that works under Nuno and my goodness is it inspiring for the neutral and those who love this club. The fear that Steve Cooper leaving may cause everything to unravel was unfounded. Instead, evidence that, for all Cooper’s magic here, a change was probably needed because everybody had grown a little weary.

Since then, something has switched. Forest are still prepared to sit behind the ball, but there is greater attacking threat. If those behind the scenes at the club were worried about taking the supporters with them on this new stage of the journey, it is an easy sell when Morgan Gibbs-White is in majestic form and finally getting into the penalty area like never before.

Add in pace out wide and a steel in midfield (that Forest have always possessed since promotion) and you can see why Nuno backs himself to take them clear of the bottom three.

The energy around this ground is something else when they are asked to dig in and help by their football team. The cheers for Turner’s saves after his horrendous mistake (he was faultless from then on); the roars at every tackle won and set piece cleared.

Nuno has spoken at length about how important he believes this crowd are and how many points they can win. That playbook hasn’t changed from Cooper’s days to these.

Speaking of change, that same question has to be asked again. If you keep having to ask whether your manager is the right man for the daunting job, it begins to answer its own question. Ten Hag repeatedly talks about what Manchester United are not, but we see too little of what they are.

This is a reactive football team that was finally punished for being unable to react time and time again. That isn’t football – it’s televised Russian roulette.

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