Manchester United were beaten 2-0 by Real Madrid in the penultimate game of the club’s pre-season tour of the United States on Thursday morning, with Jude Bellingham scoring his first goal for his new club in style at the NRG Stadium.
A mere 24 hours after Erik ten Hag watched Mark Binnion and the youth team be comprehensively beaten by Wrexham in San Diego, California, the Dutchman got to see his senior squad be humbled by Madrid in Houston, Texas, after seeing some impressive showings in pre-season so far.
Goals at either end of the match from Bellingham and Joselu were enough for Los Blancos to edge the ever-exciting meeting of the two footballing giants, with the Red Devils lacking the cutting edge in the final third for much of the contest.
How it went down
There were sorry scenes early on in the game when 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo was forced to make way for Christian Eriksen. Mainoo had been trusted to play in the first team against an elite opposition by his manager, but the midfielder’s time to shine was cut short after feeling the effects of a tackle that he was not even directly involved in.
Ten Hag was yet to see his senior defence concede a goal in pre-season, with the back-four having comfortably kept out Leeds United, Lyon and Arsenal thus far in the friendly fixtures, but the defence was caught sleeping just after five minutes when Bellingham gave Madrid the lead.Embed from Getty Images
The English midfielder- believed to have once been given a personal tour around Carrington led by Sir Alex Ferguson in an attempt from United to secure a transfer from Birmingham City- found himself with space in behind having been found by a long ball from Antonio Rudiger, formerly of Chelsea. Bellingham lifted it over the onrushing debutant goalkeeper Andre Onana from inside the area to score his first goal since his £88.5m move to the club.
Calls for offside may have been valid upon seeing replays, but without VAR, the game went on and Madrid were leading 1-0.
Mason Mount could have equalised ten minutes later had it not been for him fumbling his close-range strike into the hands of Andrii Lunin.Embed from Getty Images
Vinicius Junior was close to doubling the Spanish side’s lead around twenty-five minutes in when he cut back onto his right foot from the left-wing, but the subsequent effort from the Brazilian was parried away well by Onana.
The only thing Marcus Rashford had been showing off during the first half was the club’s new dark-green away kit on its debut outing, but he sprung into life around thirty-five minutes in and found an astute pocket of space on the right of the area to be assisted by Mount, but he could only drag the effort wide of the post on a tight angle after an impressive transitional piece of play from United.
Lisandro Martinez was the centre of attention once again for a naughty challenge. Having been booked last time out against Arsenal for a crunching tackle on Bukayo Saka, this time it was Bellingham on the receiving end of the Argentine’s aggression. A yellow card was rightfully awarded not long before half-time.
Carlo Ancelotti switched his entire defence for the second half, as well as the goal scorer Bellingham and Aurelien Tchouameni, the man who scored the goal that sent England packing at the Qatar 2022 World Cup in the quarter-final game with France.Embed from Getty Images
Alejandro Garnacho unleashed a powerful effort from the edge of the box that was parried over and out by Lunin in what was one of the better chances of the half for his side. Shortly after, Ten Hag made nine changes that left only captain Bruno Fernandes and new goalkeeper Onana remaining on the pitch.
Not long after his introduction, Scott McTominay won back possession on the halfway line and proceeded to carry the ball past Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga and into the area, but the Scotsman failed to produce the spectacular with his lacklustre effort on goal.
Madrid then had their own chance to score when United were caught out on the breakaway, but Onana came to the rescue to deny Joselu from a tight angle at the back post after being set up by left winger Brahim Diaz.
Joselu did eventually assure his side of the win, however, with a delightful overhead kick at the back post having been found by Lucas Vazquez’s cross from the right wing in the 86th minute. Onana stood helpless as the striker powered the ball into the bottom corner. Brandon Williams could have perhaps done better in tracking the scorer despite finding himself in an unorthodox position in the centre of the defence.Embed from Getty Images
Joselu had drawn the bullet to decide the outcome of football’s answer to a traditional Western showdown; the two cowboys faced off, with Madrid sharper and more clinical and United simply second best on the day as the referee blew for full-time in Texas.
Final Score: Real Madrid 2-0 Manchester United (Bellingham 6’, Joselu 86’)
Player ratings and lineups
First half: Andre Onana (6), Aaron Wan Bissaka (7), Raphael Varane (6), Lisandro Martinez (6), Luke Shaw (6), Casemiro (6), Kobbie Mainoo (off 6’) (6), Mason Mount (6), Bruno Fernandes © (6), Alejandro Garnacho (7), Marcus Rashford (6).
First half substitutes: Christian Eriksen (on 6’) (6)
62 minutes onwards: Andre Onana (6), Diogo Dalot (6), Harry Maguire (6), Victor Lindelof (6), Brandon Williams (6), Scott McTominay (6), Donny van de Beek (6) Bruno Fernandes © (6), Antony (6), Facundo Pellistri (6), Jadon Sancho (6).
Man of the match
Although he did not do anything out of the ordinary, Wan-Bissaka put on a good display at right-back during his time on the pitch.
The Englishman has often been accused throughout his career of not being as comfortable on the ball as a modern full-back should be, yet nowadays, he rarely loses possession in his area of the field, even when the opposition are pressing him and the rest of the defence.
The 25-year-old never looked flustered when faced one-on-one with Vinicius Junior, who many football fans feel is now one of the best wingers in world football. He cannot be blamed for either goal, and was certainly one of the better players for Ten Hag on Wednesday.
The bigger pictureEmbed from Getty Images
Like any other pre-season game, the result is not something to take too seriously. It would have been a good confidence boost to beat a big side like Madrid, but it was seemingly not meant to be in Houston.
The performance from the team indicated that three big problems that United and Ten Hag had last year still remain.
Firstly, the toothless nature of the attack highlights the apparent need to sign a striker. Rashford does not feel he excels up front the way he does off the left, as he revealed in a recent interview with Gary Neville on the Overlap. Sancho is simply not the solution despite some okay showings in the role, and Anthony Martial is just never available, sadly.
It looks more and more likely that Ramus Hojlund is on his way to Old Trafford in the coming days, so that is a huge positive, but whether or not a 20-year-old striker from Atalanta with nine league goals to his name is the solution to Man United’s striker problem is another separate conversation to be had.
Secondly, the lack of a combative box-to-box midfielder to play alongside Casemiro will continue to undermine United in big games. After Mainoo- a gritty, tenacious player out of possession- was forced to be withdrawn for Eriksen- quite a calm, passive player out of possession- United were always going to struggle to win the midfield battle. This was evident away from home last campaign against Manchester City and Liverpool when United got thumped for sixes and sevens (quite literally) at the hands of not winning the midfield battle against top quality players.
Similarly to how it looks like Hojlund will come in to solve the striker problem, Sofyan Amrabat could well be the solution to United’s absence of tenacity in the no.8 role. The Fiorentina midfielder is subject of strong rumours from credible journalists to be on his way to Manchester, but it is often stressed that any deal for the 26-year-old Moroccan would depend on departures of current midfielders like Van de Beek, McTominay and Fred.
Mason Mount did look set to play the role, although evidence suggests that Ten Hag sees Mount as an attacking outlet at no.10.
The third issue that was shown against Madrid that still remains from last season is the lack of quality off the bench. United need stronger, more well-equipped players to come on and flip a game on its head. The solution to this is surely to keep buying first team players, in turn making current first teamers drop to the bench and adding competition for places in the process. The signing of Mount exemplifies how this can be done, if Eriksen or another established midfielder drops to the bench.
The main individual performance to observe was Onana’s. His debut showed how he is comfortable on the ball, as everyone expected he would be, often 20-30 yards off his line at times. It seems he will be a very interesting signing to watch. He was perhaps too eager to please on the first goal, but he produced some good stops and it is hard to be too critical of the former Cameroon international.
What is next?
Man United next face Borussia Dortmund at 02:00 (BST) on Monday 31st July at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The following Saturday 5th August, United host RC Lens at Old Trafford at 12:45 (BST) at Old Trafford as the Reds return to the Theatre of Dreams.