LONDON • It would be easy for Manchester United to hide behind Juan Mata's brainless sending-off midway through the first half for their 1-0 defeat by West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Sunday.
There was no doubting it was a significant moment in the match but the reality is that United were so tame and timid for such long periods, that there was little evidence to suggest they would have fared better with 11 men on the field.
There was barely an attack from the Red Devils to mention, let alone a shot, after Salomon Rondon, the game's best player, put West Brom in front with 24 minutes remaining.
In the past, West Brom would invariably have had to withstand a siege to escape with three points. But the ease with which they saw out the game spoke volumes for how passive and how meek United have become since Alex Ferguson - who was among the spectators at The Hawthorns - retired.
United had built a nominal head of steam over the past fortnight but fans were kidding themselves if they believed a run of four successive wins marked the start of an upward curve.
Among the myriad problems that have surfaced under manager Louis van Gaal, a brittle core is principal among them and, surveying the characteristics in that squad, it is a shortcoming that will probably be addressed only with the arrival of a glut of leaders and strong-minded characters.
Defeat left United in sixth spot, two points adrift of West Ham United and three behind Manchester City, who are fourth with a game in hand and are also their next opponents in the league.
Lose that and United, who have two wins in their past five league matches, can probably forget about Champions League qualification, unless the Europa League provides some salvation.
Even on a weekend of daft red cards, Mata's dismissal in the 26th minute took some beating in the witless stakes.
The Spaniard, who apologised to United fans yesterday, is one of the game's more intelligent thinkers but he temporarily failed to engage his brain as two needless bookings - the first for obstructing Darren Fletcher's free kick and the second for swiping at his former United team-mate's ankle - in the space of 158 seconds culminated in the first red card of his career.
His rash acts emboldened a West Brom team who, in truth, did not look like they needed much of a helping hand.
Van Gaal described Mata's action as "stupid" but curiously suggested that Mike Dean, the referee, should have taken the Spaniard's reputation into consideration before sending him off.
"What can I say when you send off a player like Mata? You can do it according to the rules, but I think the referee has to know the person doing it. I don't think Mata has ever had bad tackles or something like that. Normally all of the referees are doing this (using their discretion)," said the Dutchman.
Van Gaal described Mata's dismissal as "the turning point in the match", one that he admitted leaves his side in a "very bad moment". United would have gone level on points with City if they had won.
He laid part of the blame for the defeat on their congested fixture schedule as they were playing their fifth game in less than two weeks.
"It is very difficult. I think that is why we lost," van Gaal said.
United's schedule is not about to get any easier. They face Liverpool in the Europa League on Thursday, before an FA Cup game with West Ham and the return leg against Juergen Klopp's side, all within the space of the next 10 days.
When they return to Premier League action in a fortnight, they travel to City and title-chasing Tottenham Hotspur, after the visit of Everton to Old Trafford.
It should be no surprise, then, that van Gaal felt what he saw as "an unnecessary loss" was especially damaging. United, their manager said, are now in danger of "losing touch" with the Premier League's top four.
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE