Manchester United’s progress is now being measured by plucky, resilient losses

An unpopular political party in a mid-term election can win by avoiding a heavy loss. An honorable defeat, reducing the margin from last time, allows a candidate to claim progress in lieu of actual victory. It allows them to argue that things will be better next time, that the demographics are slowly shifting, and the landscape is becoming more favorable. It’s a way of re-aligning the narrative, readjusting expectations in the present but sending them soaring for the future, where anything’s possible.

Sunday was a semi-decent day at the polls for Manchester United, if we’re going to say that losing 1-0 at the Etihad Stadium with 10 men isn’t a bad result for a top-four contender, as opposed to a club with title ambitions. Given it’s now 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea, logically, United can’t be a title pretender. Not this season. But next year, after a full season of Louis van Gaal? Sure, why not? Lessons will be learned, campaign strategies refined, other candidates’ weaknesses discovered and exploited.

In search of positives, we’re reduced to praising United’s spirit, which seems patronizing. As if, only a goal down against its great rivals and with Wayne Rooney and Ángel di María on the field, United wasn’t going to try and score, or play with some degree of hope. But Van Gaal spent $240 million in transfer fees last summer. United don’t get to be called “plucky,” or “resilient,” as if it’s a non-league team facing a giant in the FA Cup.

A late equalizer, as happened the week before against Chelsea, was always a possibility. But that the team was only one down was more thanks to a succession of City near-misses than anything, as well as referee Michael Oliver’s failure to give the home side at least two clear penalties. But then Oliver apparently can’t tell when he’s about to be head-butted …

… so we can’t expect him to notice fouls on other people. He was probably only in charge of the game because Mark Clattenburg loves Ed Sheeran.

Yaya Touré had a couple of sly touches, but the Touré of 2013-14 would have scored on Sunday, while James Milner in for the injured David Silva reduced City’s sting as they swarmed all over United for two-thirds of the game.

Antonio Valencia at right back is folly against good teams, and now Marcos Rojo has a dislocated shoulder. Marouane Fellaini was surprisingly OK – apart from missing a couple of decent chances and having the gall to berate a prone Sergio Agüero for diving after kicking the striker in the back of the leg. But Daley Blind looked like a lost child, although maybe that was because he spent time standing next to Fellaini, whose hair alone is taller than him.

United only had bite and enjoyed decent possession in midfield because Rooney spent most of his time operating in and around the center circle, or even deeper – at one point helping out Valencia near the corner flag. So what’s the point of having Blind as the defensive screen if Rooney’s going to do his job for him?

As for Robin van Persie, the reason United won the title in 2012-13? A heat map of his performance yesterday would resemble Anchorage in February. And let’s not forget, this City team is currently far less functional and impressive than last season’s vintage. That they didn’t seal off the match decisively probably says more about its shortcomings than United’s strengths, just as United’s 4-0 win over QPR in September was more revelatory about the Londoners’ fecklessness than the winners’ capabilities.

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League

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City has won four straight Manchester derbies for the first time since 1970. Not even Ryan Giggs was born then. But Van Gaal won’t lose self-confidence and doubt himself, as David Moyes did even before taking the job. The Dutchman already seems to have resigned himself to this being a transitional year, and given his pedigree, that won’t be a problem. He’ll enjoy more trust, more time, than Moyes. Because whether he’s ultimately going to get things right or not, he’ll at least give the impression that he knows what he’s doing.

Injuries are a mitigating factor – no Falcao, Ander Herrera, Phil Jones or Jonny Evans on Sunday, not that the presence of the latter duo would likely have helped much. Still, Chris Smalling does not look like a viable long-term option, and in the second half, the defense consisted of Valencia, Michael Carrick, Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw. That’s a back line to terrify no one except United fans. And the lack of roster depth is telling in itself.

Given the gap in quality between the attack and the defense (with the midfield situation a little hazy), this looks a team as unbalanced as the wildly entertaining Kevin Keegan Newcastle sides of the 1990s.

Especially without European soccer to worry about, United ought to score enough goals to get into the top four. But not the top two, because by the time that defense is fixed, maybe after action in the January window, it’ll be too late. Still, after the trauma of last year, United can win by losing less.