Safe to say, that wasn't the plan. Six wins in a row, including one against Them and one against them, then a narrow loss to the best team in the country that was, according to Louis van Gaal, "our best match of the season." And then, just a week later, a 3-0 reverse at Everton. He was asked by a journalist if it was United's worst performance of the season. He agreed.
After the game, United's manager said that he knew problems were coming from the moment he looked at the warm up and saw the first team had their metaphorical cigar on. "I had the feeling; the warm-up was not so good. In the last minutes before the game you hope you can recover and stimulate your players but then it is too late." And while Van Gaal's praise after the Chelsea game might have been slightly disingenuous — a swipe at a moral victory in the absence of a real one — best to worst in eight days is some trajectory.
What happened? We don't know, obviously, but given Van Gaal specifically identified that United's "motivation, inspiration and aggression was not as high as the opponent," we can have a guess at part of the reason. Cast your mind back to February 22. United, despite playing okayish, had just lost to Swansea, and things were tight. Ahead of United, the stickiest part of the fixture list was looming; behind them, the chasing pack. Things were looking tense.
Then everything went 'click', United won six in a row, and everybody relaxed. The league table looked much friendlier, and the wins over Manchester City and Liverpool served not just as victories, but as the shaking off of the post-Moyes hangover. Look! Things have changed! And then Chelsea, and the potent delusion of having deserved something better.
Confidence is a funny thing, and too much can often be as dangerous as too little. And the problem with a crucial run of fixtures is the danger of what can happen once a team's out the other side, apparently unscathed. It would be hard to blame the players if one or two found themselves thinking, even just for a second, 'well, that's job done'; after all, everybody else has spent all week excitedly looking forward to Memphis Depay's Champions League debut. Van Gaal pointed to the third goal, to the "three duels we lost". Heads, we're guessing, were very much elsewhere.
This might, in time, be viewed as quite a useful defeat. In a specific sense, it served as notice that this season isn't done. United have four games left. The visit of Arsenal will obviously be tricky but shouldn't be a problem in terms of motivation and focus. The other three, though — West Brom at home, Crystal Palace away, Hull City away — are exactly the kind of games that an in-form, on-their-game United should win, but a lackadaisical, unfocused United could find embarrassingly awkward. The first are a Tony Pulis side, with all that that implies, while the second have pace on the wings and Alan Pardew in the dugout, which seems to be working for them. Hull, meanwhile, are awful, but might need something to avoid relegation.
In a more general sense, it revealed that United are not a title-winning side; not yet. There are flaws in the squad —as our own Alexander Netherton wrote yesterday here — which amount to the fact this is not a side with variety in attack nor solidity in defence. It is a side better than most, but it is not there yet, and it screams for a dominant presence and personality in both defence and midfield.
But it's not just the squad. When it comes to confidence, and to mentality, this is not yet a side capable of settling into the sometimes-uninspiring business of manufacturing results, week after week, that underpins most successful title challenges. Good football teams can rouse themselves for the big games, even for a few in a row. But great football teams, the teams that win titles, can keep themselves focused no matter what's come before, and no matter who's coming next. That's what this Everton defeat showed the lack of, as much as it did any commanding central defender. And that's what United need, if they are to challenge next season.