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 Posted by Andy Mitten
Aug 18, 2014

Man United fans' optimism reduces

ESPN FC's Steve Nicol has some harsh criticism for Louis van Gaal regarding his post-match comments and his lack of activity in the transfer market.

Following an opening-day defeat vs. Aston Villa last season, an angry Arsenal fan was filmed leaving the Emirates. He looked into the camera and spoke apoplectically about the state of the team.

His response went viral, and it was easy for outsiders to laugh at the fan, easier still a month later when Arsenal had found their stride and his comments looked over the top. Football supporters love hindsight.

The fan may argue that his criticism showed his love for Arsenal, that he was only saying what most match-going fans were thinking, that the defeat to Villa wasn't a surprise for a club that had forgotten how to win trophies and kept selling its best players.

Further, he might say that such a mood touched a nerve at a club that went out to shatter its transfer record with the immediately effective signing of Mesut Ozil, a player Real Madrid fans and players didn't want to see leave.

Manchester United fans could draw certain parallels this season, and for Ozil read Angel Di Maria. Madrid's players and fans don't want him to go, but president Florentino Perez will almost certainly justify his sale with an Ozil-sized fee (42.5 million pounds).

The somber mood under depressing Mancunian skies after Saturday's defeat to Swansea was more than a knee-jerk reaction of never-satisfied fans who demand a new signing each morning.

United fans have genuine and well-founded reservations centred on the club's inability to sign new talent. They fear another summer of failure in the transfer market and are baffled when supposed lesser rivals sign players and United don't. They are bored and frustrated of being linked with players every day only for them not to arrive.

Manchester United, one of the three biggest clubs in the world and the most commercially successful, lost four defenders in the summer and, over three months since the transfer window opened, have signed one, Luke Shaw.

What's the problem? Money? A lack of Champions League football? Or are United deluding themselves that they are more attractive than they actually are?

Fans on Sir Matt Busby Way, which leads to Old Trafford, saw their optimism quickly evaporate on Saturday.

A fan of many years approached me on Sir Matt Busby Way on Saturday and asked about Mats Hummels. He thought that the German should be willing to walk to Old Trafford and play for, as the song goes, "the famous Man United."

The English club certainly wanted him and felt it was making good progress to sign him before the World Cup, but why would Hummels think like the fan hoped? There could be a dozen reasons why he wouldn't.

He could be perfectly happy being captain of the team that enjoyed the highest average attendance in the world last season (a crowd that provided a superior atmosphere than Old Trafford), living in his home country, where he is a recent World Cup winner, and playing in the Champions League under a genius of a manager in a magnificent league. A significantly improved salary aside, why would he move to northern England to play in a system he's not familiar with?

The fan was talking before the game, when optimism was high around Old Trafford after an excellent preseason that saw Louis van Gaal lift confidence throughout the club. That was before Swansea, in the words of the new manager, "smashed" United's confidence.

The Welsh side broke the crowd too. A nascent area within Old Trafford set aside for fans who wanted to sing started well before fading away as the performance mirrored what too many saw last season and didn't want to see again.

There were mitigating factors -- there always are -- and nine United injuries didn't help. Garry Monk's side also deserves credit for its counterattacking game plan and solid defence. The 1,900 travelling fans, who had to leave South Wales at 6 a.m. to make the early kickoff, were rewarded as Gylfi Sigurdsson outshone any of United's far better remunerated starters.

Van Gaal admitted that his players were nervous, and the Dutchman stayed on the home bench as his assistant Ryan Giggs occasionally strayed to the sideline to pass instructions to players still adjusting to new tactical systems. There was little entertainment.

United fans think they know the problem -- a lack of investment in the first team. The signings of Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Shaw were welcomed, but it drives fans mad to see Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos moving elsewhere. Patience is running thin. More results like Saturday and it will snap into protest.

The team may have its reasons. Shifting unwanted players is proving difficult, and Van Gaal can be as obstinate as Sir Alex Ferguson in the transfer market. He would rather promote youth than get into a bidding war for a player. He deplores a mercenary mentality in footballers, but United need quality, experienced players and they are not going to arrive because they want to live by the Manchester Ship Canal.

United like to think that the allure of the club should matter and that players should want to be part of what their marketing department calls "the greatest football story ever told."

It's admirable that they want players who really want to play for the club. Herrera and Shaw did. Mata's relationship with Jose Mourinho had deteriorated, so he had to think about moving.

However, that's all peripheral. The bottom line is that other clubs are getting players and United are not. A change in manager didn't help from a transfer perspective. United entered serious negotiations to sign Kroos, Fabregas and Edinson Cavani, but through perceived parsimony, lack of appeal or change of manager, none signed.

It's true that signing top footballers on short notice from clubs that are under little pressure to sell isn't easy and that clubs often work six months to a year in advance to bolster their squad. It's also true that match-going United fans were patient last season.

They supported David Moyes until the final chapter of the club's worst term since 1988-89, even after a succession of dreadful results. Maybe part of that was a novelty value, life facing the realities of what 95 percent of football fans go through, which is not winning trophies season after season as United had done under Ferguson.

If the results are the same this term, that patience is unlikely to be repeated. It is unlikely, too, that the ire will be turned on the manager, but toward the club's owners instead.

As expected, one of the loudest songs at Old Trafford on Saturday was about Van Gaal, but it wasn't expected to be sung by the visiting fans, who gleefully chanted that he would be "getting sacked in the morning."

Van Gaal was not, of course, and will not be on any morning soon, but those "easy" opening six fixtures now look anything but.

Andy Mitten

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, at age 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.

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