Leyton Orient 3 Carlisle United 2: Harrison Neal collected the ball in space, before clipping it down the line. Luke Armstrong gave honest chase, but in truth Wile E. Coyote had more chance of catching Roadrunner. Dan Happe came across from Leyton Orient’s defence and dealt with the incursion as though he was putting the bins out.

Rinse, and repeat. The 65th-minute move was wholly insignificant, but also perfectly telling – and Carlisle’s performance in miniature. They had the ball, didn’t especially know what to do with the ball, did nothing of consequence with the ball, lost the ball.

A League One team, this collective? In skill, movement, style and defiance, Carlisle are failing in every essential category and it is surely now a case of when, not if, they’ll be having their return ticket to the fourth tier stamped.

Sixteen games represents 16 more opportunities, and 48 points, but come on. This team does not have the wherewithal to win enough of them or even a small number of them on this predictable evidence. Carlisle did not get every break going at the Gaughan Group Stadium – a first-half injury, going behind from a debatable corner – but we are far past the point where those things offer mitigation.

News and Star: Harrison Neal on the ball for UnitedHarrison Neal on the ball for United (Image: Richard Parkes)

Realistically it is now about activating the parachute, somehow along this remaining road, so they don’t completely crash to earth. Engineering a softer landing, one that offers the prospect of revival again, will require much more than they are currently coming up with. The Blues are now on their worst losing run (five league games) since John Ward’s steep decline in 2008, have equalled the club’s record for a period without a league clean sheet (24 games) and are bottom of the league and, while those are the numbers, how United look is just as damning.

They don’t, sad to say, look a side with a plan built to last. They don’t look capable of playing football that's up to League One standard. They don’t look like they have enough individuals good enough to carry them up this table. They look a group that would be more at home in the middle rump of the division down, at best.

This may sound scathing after getting a couple of goals away from home against one of the form teams. Yet United’s second goal in particular, and the resulting narrow margin of defeat, flattered them. This wasn’t a five-goal thriller, a near miss, a moral win. It was a defeat in which just about every atom of the performance added up to a defeat.

News and Star: Josh Vela, right, and Harrison Neal celebrate the opener for United but it proved a false dawnJosh Vela, right, and Harrison Neal celebrate the opener for United but it proved a false dawn (Image: Richard Parkes)

So what now? Something out of nowhere, anywhere, to lift the tone in any slight way. For the team, restocked in the January window to the tune of no extra points so far, it is about finding a formula from all this pallid stuff. For Paul Simpson it is also about keeping the wolf from the door: a vastly-respected and era-defining manager who cannot, right now, find the light that will guide Carlisle out of this.

Simpson, at full time, said he would be keeping his head and he “hopes everyone keeps theirs”. The subtext there hardly needs explaining. Carlisle need wins for every possible reason, need to show their “step-change” recruitment has enhanced things and that there is, above all, a plan. The quest for that elusive outcome continues against Portsmouth, the division’s best team, next weekend.

Even if United’s rise to this level was ahead of schedule, an inspired outcome after previous disarray, the gap in aptitude shouldn’t be this great. On a mild east London afternoon Simpson named an attack-minded team in theory and watched it flirt with good things before the sky fell in again.

News and Star: Jack Diamond went off injured in the 20th minuteJack Diamond went off injured in the 20th minute (Image: Richard Parkes)

With a front three of Jack Diamond, Jordan Gibson and Armstrong, United hinted at more forward-running mobility than we have recently seen. Orient, themselves in brisk form, responded to the Blues' varied early press by looking for immediate gaps over their defence.

Theo Archibald nearly profited from one such moment in the third minute, and while Diamond’s footwork offered certain possibilities, Orient had more confidence and substance in their movement, Ethan Galbraith drifting in from the right to volley wide before Harry Lewis saved a Jordan Brown sighter.

Carlisle, in need of all the help they could get, were then hindered by Diamond’s ankle injury after 19 minutes, his full debut cut short, Sean Maguire on…

News and Star: Josh Vela forces the opening goal for CarlisleJosh Vela forces the opening goal for Carlisle (Image: Richard Parkes)

… then, rather unexpectedly, a United goal, one earned through a little moment of brightness and persistence, Maguire passing to the overlapping Jack Robinson, Sol Brynn unable to collect his cross and Josh Vela benefiting from a gambling run and a ricochet that flew into the net.

Yet Carlisle’s football once ahead was, it must be said, low grade. There was scant sense that they knew how to handle their advantage. Orient imposed themselves anew as United came short of a concept beyond sending the ball up for Armstrong. Eventually the sharp home side got the room they needed, George Moncur peeling away from Robinson and serving Shaq Forde to beat Lewis with an excellent finish.

News and Star: United players thank the travelling fans after the defeatUnited players thank the travelling fans after the defeat (Image: Richard Parkes)

Then United went behind in controversial but also depressing fashion. They had a case for a foul as Ben Barclay appeared to be grabbed from behind when trying to see off the aftermath of a Lewis save. But that does not absolve the appalling defending of the corner that was awarded, Forde heading home freely inside the six-yard box.

Carlisle registered their annoyance to referee Ollie Yates, but things from there were not on the officials. United, now behind, looked clueless and almost resigned in the matter of plotting a way back. Orient had other decent chances either side of half-time before they eluded a watery challenge from Fin Back on halfway and supplied Ruel Sotiriou to clip home a third.

United had Jon Mellish in midfield by then but no further notion of how to construct a recovery. It was a dismal sight, in truth, and though, after Joe Pigott missed two good late chances, a handball gave Maguire an added-time goal from the penalty spot, nobody in east London was fooled, least of all the 828 in the away seats. The harsh truth had been laid before them long before that, and the risk is of it getting harsher still.