Manchester United's loss to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday was a dispiriting blow for fans hoping that United manager Louis van Gaal could rescue what had seemed a lost season. Van Gaal conceded that the 1-0 defeat meant the Red Devils had "lost contact" with the teams chasing fourth place, per the Guardian.
Of course, United were hampered in their efforts by Juan Mata's red card, but the seeds of the defeat—or at least the seeds of a less fluent performance—were sown not by Mata's impetuous collection of successive yellow cards but Van Gaal's own selection errors.
This was always the fear—that once senior players returned to fitness, Van Gaal would abandon some of what had made United effective in recent weeks. United had won four in four before the trip to the Hawthorns—though two of those games had been against Shrewsbury Town and FC Midtjylland.
Key to those wins had been the attacking performances of the full-backs. The adventurous Guillermo Varela was at right-back throughout the run. On the left, it was a more complex picture—Joe Riley, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Marcos Rojo all played there.
Varela's statistics hint at how much of an attacking threat he was. He made six crosses against Midtjylland at Old Trafford and provided two key passes. Against Watford, he made a key pass and completed two dribbles, adding some much-needed spark to United's attack.
He was dropped for Matteo Darmian at the Hawthorns—a baffling decision given Tony Pulis' side's lack of attacking ambition this season. Darmian is a consummate defender when on form, but his contribution in the opponent's half is considerably less impressive. In 23 Premier League appearances, he has provided just eight accurate crosses.
Compare that to Luke Shaw, who provided five in the five league games he played before his injury in September, and it is clear that it is well below par.
As well as going with the defensive choice at right-back, Van Gaal chose to break up the midfield partnership of Herrera and Schneiderlin by replacing the latter with Michael Carrick. Whatever the relative merits of the two individuals, the manager's change seemed unnecessary from the outside looking in.
Herrera and Schneiderlin had been building an understanding, and United had benefited from their energy and drive. Perhaps there was an unknown fitness issue, but otherwise, it seemed to be change for the sake of change.
And speaking of which, Van Gaal none of those were the strangest change of all. Again, assuming there was no fitness issue, the decision to exclude Memphis Depay from this game was genuinely baffling. Here is a player who had finally made an impression on United's season, having looked bereft of confidence, once again being left out of the side.
His performance against Watford was less than stellar, but the balance of United's attack looked much better in the second half of that game, and Memphis was far from bad enough to warrant dropping—especially given the potential effect of that on his burgeoning confidence.
Van Gaal must prioritise attack over defence for the rest of the season. He must keep faith in his creative players. Everything about the West Brom game made it seem like the good run that went before it happened in spite of Van Gaal rather than because of him. Once he had more choices, he made the wrong ones.
Perhaps he will bring the players left out of this one back into the fold for the UEFA Europa League game against Liverpool on Thursday. That would make it clear this was an issue of fitness and rotation, leaving egg on the faces of his detractors. And perhaps if Mata had not got sent off, Van Gaal would have eventually been vindicated.
For now, though, it seems like Van Gaal has regressed to his Manchester United mean: plodding and ineffective going forward and defensively vulnerable. The mistakes that brought this into being are those Van Gaal must avoid as the season draws to its close.
Advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.