Anthony Martial & Marcus Rashford can only offer Erik ten Hag short-term assurances
By Mitch Wilks
A Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial double act - with a late feature from Fred - saw Manchester United breeze to their most comprehensive Premier League victory under Erik ten Hag to date.
Three goals, a clean sheet, and a ball-dominant, comprehensive performance against lesser opposition who left Old Trafford full of fear and desperate not to come back anytime soon.
We've seen it all before, but something feels different this time. Are United actually 'back'?
Watching Martial - decked out in his signature gloves and sharp haircut - and Rashford bundle them home at the Theatre of Dreams in a free-flowing attacking performance suggests so. But while Erik ten Hag has been a revelation so far at United, it's all too easy to get carried away.
The 3-0 scoreline actually papers over cracks. And the overarching numbers back that claim up. United could be doing more in front of goal, and need to be doing more down the line.
Granted, that takes time. Ten Hag is still in his first season at the club, under an ownership regime that has let United rot from the core for close to 20 years at this point. The Dutchman is trying to start from scratch. Completely. And United's somewhat makeshift XI last night should serve as a reminder of that.
But let's take the black glove-tinted glasses off for a moment, and get back to reality. Martial's first time strike against Forest to double United's lead was his fifth from nine games this season. Marry two assists to that and it's a rather impressive return. The issue? Nine games simply isn't enough.
While scoring regularly had once been an issue for Martial, it seems a new lease of life under Ten Hag has finally solved that issue and given him the vein of consistency he so desperately needed. But when you still have to store him in bubble wrap before, during and after games, that's a big issue.
Rashford has overcome a period of injuries and subsequently plummeting form to recover some of his best stuff, which is scintillating. But no matter how many times he insists in interviews that he targets a prolific campaign, we simply can't be sure that it's going to happen.
10 goals and four assists from 21 games in all competitions leaves the England international on course to at least match his most prolific season in front of goal for United, where he bagged 22 times and assisted 12 in 41 games during the COVID-19 affected 2019/20 campaign - incidentally also Martial's most prolific season for the club.
Simply put, though, when you've lost a forward mid-season and the only two you have left to rely on have managed just one 20+ goal campaign each so far in their careers, it's hardly a confidence boost.
Their form under Ten Hag and the commitment they've showed to making sure they improve under the new manager is admirable and should set an example for the rest of the squad. But leaning on two players who simply don't have the track record in front of goal isn't good enough for a team who are embroiled in a top four battle that only continues to become more competitive, with aims of returning to the top of the tree.
Like Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke did in United's late 1990s, Rashford and Martial need help. The difference is Sir Alex Ferguson could throw in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham to mix things up. Ten Hag? Well, beyond Rashford and Martial, it's either stick Harry Maguire up front, give an out-of-favour Anthony Elanga another chance, or rely on a teenager from the youth ranks.
Option C sounds great. But with the stakes so high, hanging someone like Charlie McNeill out to dry on football's biggest stage doesn't sound sensible. Especially not with a transfer window around the corner and plenty of top European strikers angling for a move.
That means the Glazers - who are seemingly desperate to finally sell the club - reaching their hands into their pockets one last time. But presenting prospective new owners with a shiny new, long-term signing might actually help that along.
For the first time in years, Ten Hag has managed to showcase Rashford and Martial's talents somewhat consistently. And while they could kick on and become the two men he relies on at United, there is far too much at stake for him to gamble on that just yet.
Competition for places breeds quality. Consider that and the frankly absurd schedule United have from now until May, and the prospect of leaning on just Martial and Rashford is simply unfair for all involved. Another striker coming in would alleviate the burden, boost the numbers, give the Red Devils another outlet and further improve the squad's quality in depth.
The pair absolutely deserve the chance to carry the club forward. But United can take no chances. The margins are too fine for that.