Football Features

Toothless Man Utd attack fall to another late defeat as Nuno Espirito Santo gets rolling at Forest

By Harry Edwards

Published: 19:36, 30 December 2023

Manchester United ended 2023 with another defeat as they were toothless in their 2-1 loss to Nottingham Forest on Saturday evening.

A lot has been made of Rasmus Hojlund’s struggles in front of goal in the Premier League this season, but Man Utd were clearly missing their Danish striker’s presence on the pitch. Hojlund, who did finally break his Premier League duck in midweek, sat out of the trip to the City Ground through illness.

Starting in his place was Marcus Rashford, playing through the middle, with Antony filling the Englishman’s spot on the wing. But the Red Devils were so toothless in attack, mustering just one shot in the first half.

It was their fewest in the opening 45 minutes of a Premier League game since April 2022, when they failed to register a single shot against Liverpool. It was also the 14th time they have failed to score a first-half goal in the Premier League this season, with only Sheffield United (17) failing more often.

In a bid to try and switch things up, Erik ten Hag altered the midfield at half time, bringing on frequent goalscoring hero Scott McTominay for Kobbie Mainoo. Not too long after there was another switch as Amad Diallo replaced Antony, who has now gone 1,417 Premier League minutes without a goal, registering 48 shots in that time.

To make matters worse for Man Utd, Forest took the league with their first shot on target. Nicolas Dominguez was the man to get the goal, holding steady on the edge of the Man Utd area, unmarked for the cutback, rolling the ball into the back of the net.

At that point, Man Utd had had just two shots, but conceding seemed to have woken up their attack, with Alejandro Garnacho having two shots within 90 seconds – the first an acrobatic effort that did not have the same result as his strike against Everton.

Garnacho was involved in the next shot, and this one was on target, as Rashford equalised. But the goal was Forest’s own doing. Just a few moments before, Forest goalkeeper Matt Turner had a very lucky escape in trying to kick the ball, lofting it almost straight up in the air. He had managed to claim it on the second bounce under pressure from Rashford, but the nerves were showing.

His next attempted kick was low and short, straight to Garnacho who intercepted well before setting up Rashford whose shot was cool and curling into the bottom corner. Forest were the architects of their own downfall and many will have been predicting a Man Utd winner.

The Red Devils did go close with a good strike from Christian Eriksen, their third shot on target, but it was saved by Turner. And, with Man Utd pushing high up the pitch, Forest’s winner actually came from that move. The hosts eventually won the ball back and broke quickly, playing it out to Anthony Elanga.

The former Man Utd man went toe-to-toe with Diogo Dalot and won his battle before laying the ball to the edge of the area to Morgan Gibbs-White. The Englishman was unmarked, with Man Utd’s defence back but not their midfield, and he curled an effort into the right of the net for just his second league goal this season. Two shots on target for Forest, and two goals.

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Between Gibbs-White scoring in the 82nd minute and the fifth minute of injury time, Man Utd didn’t have a single shot, only padding their stats in the final stages. Although they ended with 10 shots and five on target, that shouldn’t hide the fact that Man Utd were toothless in attack and deserving of their failure to win.

“Manchester United were inferior here today, they’re inferior quite often to teams lower down the league from then,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports after the game.

“Forest were better all over the pitch. They outrun, outfought, outthought and I’m not quite sure what this Manchester United is to be fair, it’s a very difficult watch.”

He added: “It’s a really up and down season, and it’s more down than up. Some of these performances are really, really poor, well below anything that should be required from a team of this level.”

The defeats means the 5:30pm kick-off remains an unhappy time for the Red Devils, now winless in six Premier League games in this slot, losing four and drawing two since a 3-2 win over Tottenham in March 2022.

Man Utd have also lost nine of their opening 20 matches of a league season for the first time since 1989/90, and have already lost as many games this campaign as they did in the entirety of 2022/23.

And a moment for Forest, who have won back-to-back games under Nuno Espirito Santo after he replaced Steve Cooper, lifting them up to 15th.