An inspired performance from visiting goalkeeper Boaz Myhill and some uncoordinated attacking condemned United to a third successive league defeat, as they went down 1-0 at home to a spirited West Bromwich Albion. While United again had plenty of possession, they were frustrated at almost every turn by Tony Pulis' heroic defence, and on those rare occasions they did threaten the goal, they found a keeper in no mood to concede.
As expected, injuries forced Louis van Gaal to shuffle his pack. Daley Blind moved out to leftback, Wayne Rooney dropped into midfield and Robin van Persie made his comeback from injury up front. Despite those changes, however, the game soon fell into a predictable pattern: United dominated possession, while West Brom were happy to sit deep, keep their shape, and make the occasional firm challenge.
Sterile domination was the story of the goalless first half. United moved the ball from side to side comfortably enough, but lacked both penetration and tempo. Van Persie looked keen on his return from injury but failed to convert any of the two or three half-chances that fell his way, while Ashley Young's knack for manufacturing space on the left was let down by his crossing. Meanwhile, Juan Mata and Rooney were having no impact outside the box.
It would be a stretch to say that United should have scored, though they certainly could have done: Young should have done better when Boaz Myhill, in the West Brom goal, pushed a shot weakly to his feet, while Van Persie poked a shot from the edge of the six-yard box just the wrong side of the post. But for the most part, West Brom kept United at arm's length with disquieting ease, and probably had the best chance of the half. Joleon Lescott should certainly have done more with a free header than just nod it to a grateful David De Gea. By the interval the home crowd were audibly frustrated.
It was a game crying out for something different, but Van Gaal made no changes at half time. Not of personnel, anyway; on the field, Fellaini moved up front and Van Persie dropped into midfield alongside Rooney. As ever, the big Belgian got involved, though not always to great effect: while he could have had a penalty when Craig Gardner bundled him over, he also managed to block a goalbound effort from Daley Blind. But unlike the first half, United were forcing West Brom back, and a breakthrough looked imminent.
And then it came. At the other end. West Brom made a rare break forward in a few numbers, and Paddy McNair cleared out Darren Fletcher. Chris Brunt's freekick was low, hard, and heading straight at De Gea, until it smacked Jonas Olsson's considerable backside and flew into the opposite side of the net.
Off went Blind, on came Angel Di Maria, and forward went United. Mata had a decent shout for a penalty rejected as Lescott hung an arm out; then, with fifteen minutes left, United finally got their spot kick, after Berahino blocked a cross right on the edge of the box. Van Persie stepped up and hit his penalty hard but nowhere near high enough, and Myhill guessed correctly.
United were getting desperate, and West Brom just a touch ragged. Van Persie had a freekick saved and nobody managed to turn home the rebound, and McNair sent a free header wide of the post. But for all that the visitors were relying less on their rigid, Pulisian structure and more on flinging themselves into blocks and tackles, they were still holding out, helped by United's inability to find the right pass, Di Maria's dreadful crossing, and some witless offsides.
The late introduction of Radamel Falcao did nothing to change the game, and though Van Persie and Di Maria managed to draw excellent saves from Myhill at the death, United were unable to find their way through. This defeat, coupled with Liverpool's earlier win over Queens Park Rangers, means that gap between fourth and fifth is down to four points, and United can start to get nervous again.