Every week, our own Luis Miguel Echegaray offers his latest thoughts from the world of football. You have the analysis; now comes LME's commentary.
Welcome to The Tap-In.
Manchester United and the pressure of greatness
This week, I thought a lot about the meaning of greatness. Well, if we want to be specific: the pressures of reaching greatness and the inevitable consequences once the light begins to fade. The pursuit of greatness -- and beyond that, the battle to remain great -- is a journey that requires discipline, an admittance of humility and, in the words of Winston Churchill, the ultimate price of responsibility.
This to me, is the most important virtue. There is no path to greatness without accepting what comes alongside its expectations.
Take a look at LeBron James, for example, the seemingly omnipotent 38-year-old NBA superstar who further cemented his name in the history books by becoming the league's all-time scorer earlier this week. It was a remarkable achievement by an athlete who often defies belief when it comes to what the human body is capable of... and almost makes me wonder if he's going through some type of Benjamin Button-esque transformation. But aside from the physical prowess and the 38,390 points James accumulated to pass the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron's successes are also part of his responsibility to be great.
Greatness doesn't mean perfection, but it does mean mental and physical consistency. James has known this since he was in high school when the world was already tipping him for greatness without stepping one foot in a college basketball court, never mind an NBA one. My great, late friend Grant Wahl wrote about it more than 20 years ago and it became one of the most iconic magazine covers in American sports. The responsibility of greatness started when James was a child, and it never stopped.
Then there's Tom Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl champion and arguably the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, who eventually realized (it took him twice to admit it) that the aforementioned light was indeed fading. It was time to reflect on the end of his own great achievements as opposed to its relentless pursuit. We'll see if Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs' mesmeric quarterback, can add to his own legacy this Sunday, earn his second ring and continue the almost-impossible chase to emulate what Brady did.
So, with all this talk of greatness (and Tampa Bay), we arrive at Manchester United, the most successful club in the Premier League era and the once-feared Red Devils of the 1990s, who have not won a major trophy since 2017. It's their longest drought in four decades. If there is a club who perfectly fits the role of protagonist inside my Pursuit of Greatness screenplay, it's them.
Let's talk about Manchester United and why, in a not-so-subtle manner -- thanks to their pragmatic Dutch coach and a brewing resiliency -- they are quietly showing the rest of the league that this title race has more than just two horses.
When we emigrated to England from Peru in the early 1990s, my late father -- a victim of woeful, controversial football courtesy of Peru's national team -- decided that once we entered this strange, new land, he would be done with anything less than greatness when it came to his football team. As a result, he became a massive, passionate, all-in Manchester United fan.
He was done with mediocrity. He was tired of amateurism and disappointment. He was ready for glory, and the recently crowned, first-ever Premier League champions were it. Roy Keane's midfield presence appealed to his former military background, while Eric Cantona's flair and self-assured charisma was the closest United had compared to a very Peruvian brand of misguided arrogance.
My dad was all in.
Most people detested them, like so many of us during United's glory days, and my dad -- much like most United fans -- was insufferable. Here was this team, managed by a no-nonsense, unapologetic Scot who was delivering victories as easy as it felt to blink. The trend continued throughout the years and my father would sit there next to me, especially when United played my beloved Aston Villa, smirking throughout because he knew what was coming.
Manchester United were unapologetic in their brilliance and much like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, they didn't care about a linear narrative. However the story started, it didn't matter. United would have its own ending.
Years have inevitably gone by, my father has sadly gone too and in the end, Manchester United were forced to deal with the same force that impacts us all: time. But it wasn't only time that hurt United; it was their inability to move with it.
There have been so many issues affecting the proud club. From Sir Alex Ferguson's exit as manager in 2013 and the impossible hunt to replace him, self-harming decisions by the board, a weaker academy, an inability to compete with the emergence of Man City's Abu Dhabi United Group (that's a whole other story), the unpopular and arguably harmful Glazer ownership, plus poor transfer decisions are just some of many reasons that explain the trophyless years; from a managerial perspective, time after time, the selection process was always the wrong one, either due to timing or chemistry.
Replacing Ferguson is an impossible battle and for years, United was unable to shake off the legendary manager's shadow. It became harder when Ferguson didn't fully leave the club as he still remains an influential voice inside the decision making. Escaping the ghosts of success when they're still living in your house can be an arduous task. All these factors obstructed the club's vision and for a while, it seemed as if fans would be forced to accept this new inferior personality.
Well, it seems that finally, FINALLY, they have a manager who is changing that perception. Erik ten Hag is not only lifting results; he's changing the team's culture and in-game mindset, something that's extremely apparent when you look at their performances in 2023. They're not the finished product, but there is a cultural shift happening.
On Wednesday night, with seven first-team players absent including Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, Scott McTominay, Antony and Anthony Martial, and with an uninspired performance in the first half against a valiant, manager-less Leeds United at Old Trafford, the Red Devils came back from 2-0 down to earn a point.
Yes, I know: it was only a draw against a team from the bottom half of the table, and there were mistakes -- Ten Hag was so appalled by Fred's careless first-half performance that he threw his gum to the floor -- but I think the bigger message lies in the manner in how, despite the hiccups, they earned the point back. They didn't give up and that's something that has been missing for years.
Ten Hag is waking them up once again, encouraging them to enjoy the grit of the action and despite remaining in third place after Wednesday's game, United are slowly but surely rediscovering who they once were and yes -- winning the Premier League title is a legitimate possibility.
United's resurgence is not just a testament to Ten Hag: his squad is also cultivating an electric chemistry and players are demonstrating their individual acumen. Marcus Rashford, for example, is playing like the best player in Europe who doesn't play for Napoli and just like my friend Carl Anka says, he got his mojo back. Since the end of the World Cup, the 25-year-old England international has 12 goals -- Wednesday night's goal was a quintessential striker's header, one that would make Alan Shearer proud -- but what's more impressive is his ability to be part of a system that allows him to express himself.
In a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation that can sometimes look like a 4-2-4, mobile and reactive, Rashford has the space to capitalize. His biggest strengths (going at defenders, penetrating the box, creating space) are now used to the fullest. The starting midfield is strong once again, which is essentially the foundation of everything positive under Ten Hag, and they have a wonderful combination of youth and experience.
When it clicks, United play wonderful football, but it's also imperfect. It's resilient, attractive and without ego, but as Leeds United showed, Ten Hag & Co. still have work to do. The biggest issue lies in how they start matches and they need to remain consistent with their energy from the first minute.
"If you start each half the way we did [against Leeds], it's unacceptable," said Ten Hag after Wednesday's result. "But I have to make compliments to the team, the way they are resilient, the way they fight back, and I think we make some really good football, create chances, finally also we finished and scored two great goals."
The advantage for United is that no team in the Premier League is playing indomitable football right now. Even league leaders Arsenal -- as they showed against Everton -- are a work in progress. What can separate any great club from its rivals is the ability to learn from these errors and elevate. My favorite thing about Ten Hag's team, however, is their collective spirit. They all pull for one another and step into frame when someone is not available.
When things weren't clicking on Wednesday with Alejandro Garnacho and Wout Weghorst, Ten Hag gave the green light for Facundo Pellistri (for his Premier League debut) and Jadon Sancho, who essentially changed the game. It is no coincidence that this entertaining, selfless, cohesive unit is also thanks to the departure of a certain Portuguese individual who demanded so much attention on and off the pitch -- oh, and on that topic, I really, really detest saying I told you so. OK, no I don't.
Training, just like in the days of Ferguson, is now energetic and fun and there is once again an optimistic air that surrounds the players. "What we see is bright and happy people," says Ten Hag. "I think be positive, so you have to approach it in a game, in a positive mindset."
It's important to remember that the point against Leeds was a great example of defiance, but judging from what we have seen this year, it was also an aberration. Prior to that game, they were on a 13-match winning run at Old Trafford and have lost once in 2023. Ten Hag's win ratio with the Red Devils is nearly 74%, the same percentage he managed during as his four-and-a-half years with Ajax.
Man United will keep climbing and winning points and alongside Arsenal and Man City, I believe they are a title contender. Their manager, their team and philosophy are painting one picture, which circles back to my original thought -- that greatness begins with a consistent sense of responsibility. Let's hope ownership also takes this into consideration.
I'm just happy knowing that my father is hopefully watching Manchester United from above with a big smile on his face... he's probably also smirking at me.
Tweet of the week
There are more important things in life than football and this week we were reminded of such a sentiment. My deepest thoughts, prayers and condolences to those affected -- including members of the football community -- by the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey. As a result, the big four teams of Turkish football -- Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Trabzonspor -- launched an aid campaign in the southeastern cities affected by Monday's deadly catastrophe. Other clubs also did their part to assist those in need.
Depremin neden olduğu yaraları hep birlikte saracağız.— Beşiktaş JK (@Besiktas) February 7, 2023
Depremden etkilenen vatandaşlarımızın yaralarını sarmak üzere düzenlenen yardım kampanyasının ilk günü 👇 pic.twitter.com/WLPgPUJgz2