Manchester United's recent momentum ground to a spluttering halt at the Hawthorns on Sunday, as West Bromwich Albion took advantage of some curious selection decisions and a moment of rank stupidity from Juan Mata to record their first home win over Manchester United since before the Premier League was born.
We might as well start with the red card, since virtually nothing occurred beforehand. Juan Mata picked up his second yellow card after 26 minutes, having made two crucial-but-illegal interventions in West Brom attacks that would otherwise have resulted in certain goals. Oh, wait, no. That's not right. The first was for blocking a quick free kick deep in West Brom's half — stupid — and the second was a lazy swing of his left leg at a ball that had long since departed, hitting only a shin that had not. Also stupid. Not sure he'll be getting the captain's armband back any time soon.
Apart from that, naff all. United, scrappy and incoherent even before Mata's dismissal, moved Marcus Rashford out to the right flank once they went down to ten, but he, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial were isolated, starved of service and generally ineffective. West Brom looked the more likely to score both before and after the red, though the generally low standard of play meant that David de Gea wasn't exactly overworked. The best chance for either side came when Craig Dawson noticed United's keeper slightly off his line and attempted a lob from twenty-odd yards. It slid just past the post.
United started the second half with a little more fizz, forcing a succession of corners and fashioning a couple of half-chances. Lingard swiped a long range effort onto the roof of the netting, then a run from Martial was rudely abbreviated just outside the penalty area. Juan Mata took the ensuing freekick, and clipped the ball neatly into the top corner of oh wait, no, that's not right. He'd been sent off, so Ander Herrera hit it into the wall.
But then, twenty minutes into the second half, West Brom remembered that they had a man advantage and promptly took the lead. Sebastian Pocognoli, all alone on the left flank, whipped a firm cross to the far side of the six yard box, where Salomon Rondon found himself curiously unmarked. Five United players stood in a neat, respectful circle around him, keeping their distance, not wanting to put him off as he shot. He gratefully slotted home, and somewhere in Portugal, Jose Mourinho chuckled to himself.
Over this weekend of Premier League football, three teams — Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool — had gone down to ten men and subsequently scored; United, in the half-hour remaining to them, never looked like becoming the fourth. Van Gaal brought on Memphis Depay for the knackered Rashford, then, as the game slipped away from his side, took off rightback Matteo Darmian and sent on Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Who went to rightback. West Brom's defence conspicuously failed to tremble.
We can only assume that the decision to relegate Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin to the bench, just as both were showing their best form since joining the club, was taken with one eye on Thursday's game against Liverpool. And we can perhaps acknowledge that Tony Pulis knows how to set up a defence against eleven men, never mind ten. But Van Gaal spoke before the game about the improved mood around the dressing room; that, now, has certainly dissipated. United can only hope that this amounts to a blip, and not the beginning of another slump.