Man United's momentum checked yet again as inconsistent season continues
It's a shame that Manchester United have been unable to find consistency this season, because the Premier League is there for the taking.
Each team in the top five has fewer points than their equivalents a year ago, but when an opportunity opens up, United spurn it. They win when they're not expected to and lose when victory is anticipated. If that doesn't sound like a contradiction, they win against the best teams and lose against the worst.
There are big differences in home and away results. Crystal Palace and Bournemouth have picked up as many points -- 19 -- on the road as United, who were beaten for a sixth time on their travels at West Brom on Sunday. No other team in the top 12 has lost as many away games.
United are now sixth and their total of 47 points from 29 games is their lowest at this stage of the season for 26 years. At the same stage last season, they had 56 and, if they had matched that in 2015-16, they'd be second and only four points off the top.
In saying "if only", United have become like any other team of also-rans. Fans of West Ham, who visit Old Trafford for an FA Cup sixth round tie on Sunday, base their whole mentality on "fortune always hiding" as they sing about dreams which "fade and die" in their terrace song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."
West Ham don't win trophies; Manchester United did for a long, long time. The last side to do so won the league title in 2013 and had 74 points after 29 games -- 27 more points than the current team.
It's 27 points that Van Gaal is identifying as his target for the rest of the season, nine wins from the final nine league matches. He may as well identify signing Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar while he's in such fanciful mood.
"When [Sir Alex Ferguson] left, it probably wasn't the best or most fluid of United teams," says Paul Scholes in a forthcoming interview with United We Stand, "but they won the league by 10 points. And I think if Ferguson was there now, they'd probably win the league by 10 points again."
Ferguson is still around the club, but he's no longer boss. For now, United have Van Gaal, who has provided some moments of joy, but even more of frustration, with the match against West Brom, who hadn't previously beaten United at home in the league since 1984, being the latest.
In a 1-0 defeat, Juan Mata was sent off for the first time in almost 500 professional games. The Spaniard, who had captained the team and scored the winning goal against Watford in midweek, is not a dirty player.
He lives cleanly on and off the field -- a filling winter plate of his native Asturian favada stew is one of the few indulgences which would raise eyebrows among dieticians -- but his dismissal was stupid and rendered his team even more insipid.
The 3,000 away fans started the game singing "Viva Ronaldo" in honour of former -- and maybe future -- hero Cristiano. They hoped that their team had someone as direct and difficult for opponents but United managed a solitary effort on target in a soporific encounter.
Despite more goals in 2016, this is not a team that creates chances readily and no player has managed more goals in the league than the seven scored by both Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
There are great hopes for Martial and Marcus Rashford there's no goalscorer currently at Old Trafford like Ruud van Nistelrooy who, coincidentally, played up front at Malaga with West Brom match-winner Salomon Rondon five years ago. Van Nistelrooy was the top scorer in four of his five seasons at United. His impact was instant.
"He'd come from Dutch football so obviously I hadn't seen much of him and when he came and you watched him on that first day in training and saw his finishing you just thought 'wow,'" said Scholes. "He was one ruthless bastard in front of goal. I absolutely loved playing with him."
There's very little that's ruthless about the current United and the low-scoring side will look to strengthen their attack again, but for the rest of this season they'll use what they have, even though Van Gaal's deployment of players is mystifying at times.
He's praised when he makes the correct decisions and criticised when it goes wrong. On Sunday, Rashford was moved wide despite having scored goals while Memphis Depay was dropped following his best run in the team.
Van Gaal said "these type of matches you always must win" as he conceded that a top four finish will be difficult. It shouldn't be, not with the teams around them equally inconsistent.
Plus, if it was a must-win game, why was their so little urgency from United in its closing minutes?
Why did Van Gaal replace a full-back with a full-back -- Tomothy Fosu-Mensah came on for Matteo Darmian -- with seven minutes to play and his side desperate for an equaliser?
Why did the manager bring off Ander Herrera, a player whose attacking intent was even more vital after Mata's dismissal, and replace him with holding midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, who could do nothing with the last-minute chance which fell to him?
In mitigation, it was United's fifth match in 14 days and a flurry of key games is approaching. Liverpool (twice), West Ham and Manchester City are United's next four opponents.
The first three of those games are cup ties and will go a long way to deciding whether this season ends as the failure it has so far been, or one with some surprising success at the end.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.