Despite dominating possession and the award of a second half penalty, United fell to a third consecutive defeat and, just as worryingly, a third without scoring. Without Michael Carrick in the middle of the park, the Reds again seem a pale shadow of the team that romped to victories over Spurs, Liverpool and city and this latest defeat means a top four finish is no longer the formality it looked even a few days ago.
With Blind required to replace the injured Luke Shaw at left-back, Herrera was deployed in the midfield holding role and, robbed of his presence further forward, the United midfield looked pedestrian, lacking penetration against a Baggies side efficiently organised by ex-Red Darren Fletcher and set up to soak up whatever United threw at them. Which, sadly, wasn’t much.
There were, admittedly, moments in the first half when United threatened to breach the Albion rearguard: Van Persie forced a save out of Myhill and flashed a shot narrowly wide following an excellent cross from Young. Such efforts were few and far between, though, and a poor reward for the Reds’ domination of possession. Van Gaal understandably changed things tactically in the second half, using Fellaini in a forward role and the move initially looked likely to yield results, the big Belgian holding the ball up well only for his team mates to feed poorly off the opportunities that fell to them.
As the game went on, the worry was of course that the visitors would break and grab an unlikely goal, which was precisely what happened. McNair fouled Fletcher on the edge of the box and Brunt’s free kick cannoned off team mate Olsson to give De Gea no chance.
There were opportunities for United to get back into the game, not the least of which was the penalty awarded when Berahino handled a Valencia cross. Van Persie stepped up to take the spot kick but it was Myhill who rose more fully to the occasion to parry the Dutchman’s shot. He saved superbly again from Van Persie as the game neared its close, by which point United were throwing everything at their opponents but without reward. So many balls into the box were wayward, while others were dealt with easily by the West Brom. defence.
It was, then, a disappointing and frustrating afternoon for Reds fans. A team that looked on the verge of a serious challenge for second place only two weeks ago now seems, following the loss of Carrick, once again to embody the concerns so often raised prior to that Tottenham game: that the current United side is able to dominate possession but threaten so little with it that the opposition can stifle their attacking play almost without breaking sweat. Which is precisely what West Brom. did.
United now have a tricky away game at Crystal Palace before welcoming Arsenal to Old Trafford: failure to take the points at Palace would now be too horrible to contemplate. Unless, that is, you can stomach a summer spent recalling that final few games in which Liverpool crept past us to seize an unlikely Champions League place. Thought not.