And so it goes on, and on.

The dark night of Manchester United's soul.

A pattern of frustration and disappointment, where every chink of light proves merely the prelude to an even bleaker day.

For David Moyes, this was not how it was supposed to be.

Yes, the Scot always accepted, perhaps expected, a reaction to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, knew that the sheer brooding presence of the Laird of Old Trafford had helped mask the fault-lines and frailties of the squad he was inheriting.

But not in his wildest fears would Moyes have anticipated seven defeats already this season, six in the league, four of them on home soil, and kicking off the New Year with three straight losses.

What matters for United now, more than anything, is the response to the latest setback.

Losing at Sunderland in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg was not fatal. Nor was the FA Cup reverse at the hands of Swansea. Not even the January 1 shocker against Spurs.

Yet in the space of a few months, the invulnerability, the fear factor that had been built up into a gargantuan psychological beast in the Ferguson years has evaporated, disappeared, gone. Perhaps for good.

There was something, if not foreboding, then at least worrying at the reaction in the Stadium of Light directors' box.

Standing alongside Fergie, Sir Bobby Charlton's glum expression said plenty. The shake of the head said the rest.

Moyes has the backing of the fans, the board and the players. But he has to prove he is the man for the job"

When things go wrong, there are no simple solutions. It is a confluence of events, combining to wear away at confidence, belief and performance.

Without Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie - let alone Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand and Marouane Fellaini - United appear rudderless, lacking direction and on-field leadership.

Moyes' agitated response, casting angry aspersions over Andre Marriner, hinting at fears of a refereeing conspiracy, will not do anybody any favours, either.

The United boss may just avoid an FA disrepute charge, although he certainly touched the line over what is acceptable, even if he didn't actually cross it. But paranoia breeds more negativity and players need positive signals.

To be fair to the players, plenty of them recognise they are letting the manager down. They are in his camp, as were the travelling fans on Wearside.

A home league match in January, against Swansea, is not supposed to be crucial. Yet for United, that is exactly what they now face, ahead of next week's trip to Stamford Bridge.

Moyes has to put things right, quickly. The title, surely, is gone but now United are locked in a scramble for fourth, for a place at the Champions League table next season.

Fail in that quest, and there will be consequences, huge doubts over the United futures of Rooney, Van Persie and David De Gea for starters. United, 11 points adrift of Arsenal, five behind Liverpool, no longer have any margin for error.

Moyes retains the backing of the fans and the boardroom, the loyalty of his players. He, though, has to stand up and be counted now, to prove he is the man for the job.

There can be no signs of weakness, no hints of doubt. If there are, then disintegration could follow.

United's season is at a tipping point. It can go either way. Nobody inside Old Trafford can hide from that any longer. Who would ever have imagined it would come to this, so swiftly?