Under-fire Erik ten Hag says misfiring Manchester United have to “step up” and find a modicum of consistency after Nottingham Forest inflicted their 14th defeat of a chastening season.
A year that began with positivity and silverware ended with the Red Devils under intense scrutiny given they are already out of Europe, the Carabao Cup and Premier League title race.
United have been infuriatingly inconsistent throughout the campaign, epitomised by the thrilling 3-2 Boxing Day turnaround against Aston Villa being followed up Saturday’s limp 2-1 loss at Forest.
“One thing is clear we are not consistent,” boss Ten Hag said. “We can beat the best teams in the league, but we also lose games we should win, and I think today was one of them.
“We always have to swap (players due to absentees). I don’t think I talk a lot about players we don’t have. Every time I am telling it doesn’t matter who we line up, we have to win.
“But the routines are not there if every time we have to swap.
“Today is another example. When (Rasmus) Hojlund is ill, we have to swap our frontline and we have seen it in the first half there was no speed in the game there.”
This was quite the comedown from the Boxing Day victory against Villa and the positivity some fans felt after the Christmas Eve announcement that Sir Jim Ratcliffe is becoming minority owner.
INEOS are taking responsibility for the footballing operations and Ten Hag said on Friday that he was convinced they wanted to keep him on as manager.
Sir Dave Brailsford, INEOS’ director of sport, watched Saturday’s game in the directors’ box alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, whose final league title in 2013 looks unlikely to be added to anytime soon.
“They know me and they know when I have a squad what is available, then the results will be there,” Ten Hag said.
“We are already proving against the top teams we can go head to head, so I’m convinced and have strong belief we get more progress in this team, that we get more consistency in.
“I think this is part of a project. We were overperforming last year. This year so, far, we are underperforming.
“We have to do better, we have to step up and I have to lead that process.”
The performances have made as grim viewing as the results, with this United’s 14th loss of the season in all competitions and 21st in total of 2023.
Asked if he is confident of things improving, Ten Hag said: “Yeah, of course I believe that.
“I know when players are returning, then I am sure this side will be stronger.
“You have to clinically analyse this, then we know where it’s come from. We have a lack of routines, we have to work on that.”
The post-match analysis will be dominated by United, but this was Forest’s night.
Four days on from winning 3-1 at Newcastle, new manager Nuno Espirito Santo celebrated his first home win in charge as they beat the Red Devils for the first time since 1994.
Morgan Gibbs-White’s late strike from the edge of the box wrapped up a memorable triumph after Marcus Rashford had capitalised on a terrible Matt Turner pass to cancel out Nicolas Dominguez’s opener.
“They did the job, the players played well,” Forest boss Espirito Santo said. “I think the team was compact.
“In the first half, I think we controlled pretty well the game, we defend well. We had good spells of possession, didn’t finish too much actions.
“Much better in the second half, we start to combine. First goal, good movement, good combination and good finish.
“We concede and it seems we’re going to be in trouble but the reaction was immediate, it showed character, so the players should enjoy the video because they did a fantastic job.
“And the fans, we cannot thank them enough so let’s enjoy this moment together.”