It was neither about the forward who left Manchester United nor the one who never joined. They required neither the released Cristiano Ronaldo nor Cody Gakpo, the prospective replacement who is instead bound for Liverpool, as instead two of the constants of a turbulent few years at Old Trafford sufficed.
A swift double by Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial saw off Nottingham Forest, with the aid of a late strike from Fred. Two goals in four minutes put United on fourth-place Tottenham’s coattails, and with a game in hand.
A season that began farcically could end happily. Rashford’s revival has been a reason for United’s transformation and he was again outstanding. Fresh from his solo strike against Burnley, he scored one goal and made another. He has brought a rich vein of form back from the World Cup and transferred it to domestic duty. He brimmed with confidence and if Martial’s fifth goal in a season that has only brought him five starts owed something to poor goalkeeping by Wayne Hennessey, it nevertheless boded well.
So did the sight of United playing with a sense of freedom, adventure and intent. It was an unremarkable result but the performance could have yielded more goals. At least it had the feel of a routine win, the sort Erik ten Hag must have wished for when his reign began ignominiously with defeat to Brighton, and it stemmed from a training-ground routine.
The opening goal was evidence of attention to detail and perhaps that is the key to United’s development; gradually, they are getting more things right and incremental improvement is adding up. It helps, too, that while United can be defined by those they did not sign, Ten Hag’s recruits do continue to contribute. Casemiro was again impressive, capping his night by winning the ball to release the substitute Fred for the third goal, while Christian Eriksen adds touches of class.
His footballing intelligence was apparent for the opener. It was a version of a corner routine perfected years ago by Darren Anderton and Teddy Sheringham. The modern-day Tottenham connection came from the former Spur Eriksen, whose low corner was met by Rashford, with a rising shot.
Scorer turned supplier three minutes later, Rashford checking inside and rolling a pass to Martial. His low shot was tipped into the net, rather than past the post, by Hennessey and United may argue it was a benefit of letting Forest borrow Dean Henderson for the season. With the on-loan goalkeeper ineligible, his deputy made an unconvincing start. On a belated league debut, Hennessey’s first contribution was to somehow deflect Tyrell Malacia’s drive on to the upright; it scarcely inspired confidence.
The Welshman, making a return to action after the tragicomedy of his World Cup red card, nevertheless improved and needed to. When Hennessey saved an Antony shot, it followed fine passes by the Mancunian and Bruno Fernandes. Martial had an effort blocked by Hennessey, with Fernandes again denied an assist, while the goalkeeper blocked Rashford’s close-range volley and tipped away his chip. He was eventually defeated again when two Brazilians combined, Casemiro feeding Fred but, having lost 6-0 on the other side of Manchester in August, Forest were spared a second thrashing.
Their run of three consecutive wins ended, rather predictably. Their regret may be that they did not do more to test United’s ersatz defence. Raphael Varane was the first of the Premier League’s World Cup finalists to return to action and he assumed a greater importance as he lent assurance in a new-look centre-back partnership. With a virus ruling Victor Lindelof and Scott McTominay out while Lisandro Martinez remains out of contention, Luke Shaw lined up as an emergency centre-back. He acquitted himself well alongside first Varane and then Harry Maguire, whose own comeback from the sick bed came in the form of a cameo.
For Shaw, there was a clean sheet in his new role, even if referee Anthony Taylor, another who had traded Qatar for Greater Manchester, initially awarded Forest a first away league goal since August. Ryan Yates’ header went in off Willy Boly’s foot and, if United complained the midfielder had handled, the ultimate verdict was that the defender was offside when he applied his unwitting touch.
Before then, David de Gea had managed to chest away a swerving shot by Yates; afterwards, he displayed more conviction and sharper reflexes to repel Brennan Johnson’s improvised flick. Orel Mangala shot into the side-netting and Forest played reasonably without ever really looking like they would take anything back to the Midlands.
Jesse Lingard’s first return to Old Trafford was a quiet affair that was curtailed within an hour when he hobbled off; United were given few reasons to lament his departure while a player denied a farewell by Ralf Rangnick was afforded a warm reception as he trudged along the touchline. With Morgan Gibbs-White already out, his departure reduced Forest’s attacking options.
After 22 summer signings, however, there is a case for saying they should not buy. Martial and Rashford, meanwhile, made the case that United do not need to.