A youthful Manchester United side fell to a humbling defeat to Wrexham at the Snapdragon Stadium in the early hours of Wednesday morning, with the Welsh side running out 3-1 winners in a physical encounter that saw chances, goals and even a red card.
It was quite literally a case of men against boys for much of the contest, with Erik ten Hag trusting youth coach Travis Binnion to manage his under-21 squad to take on the newly-promoted League Two side, aided by the presence of 35-year-old Jonny Evans at centre-back.
Wrexham found themselves in cruise control after goals from midfielder Elliot Lee and defender Aaron Hayden during the first half.
Reds right-back Marc Jurado halved the deficit with a well-taken volley inside stoppage time of the first period, but after a red card to Daniel Gore just two minutes after play resumed following half-time, it was going to take a mammoth effort to complete any comeback.
To coin the popular phrase around Wrexham in the media- in the context of their A-list celebrity owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney – it became quite the triumphant Hollywood fairytale that the club would have wanted after Sam Dalby restored the two-goal advantage with twenty minutes remaining and sealed the win for his side, who ran out victors accordingly as the sun went down in San Diego, California.
How it went down
The first talking point of the match came just after twelve minutes and, unfortunately, it is not for the nicest of reasons; Wrexham’s star striker Paul Mullin came off worse after being clattered by onrushing goalkeeper Nathan Bishop in a fifty-fifty that was rightfully contested by both players.
A free-kick was awarded on the edge of the area with Bishop correctly cautioned, although it was later revealed by Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson that Mullin had suffered a small puncture to the lung and was being treated in hospital. Thankfully, the injured striker has since taken to social media to inform fans that he is okay and recuperating.
Man United’s club stance is that they are not happy, though, after Parkinson made some rather unsavory comments regarding Bishop’s foul to the media post-match, believing that it provokes unnecessary online abuse towards the young goalkeeper who has already believed to have apologetically spoken to Mullin after the game.
Wrexham took the lead in the 29th minute when Lee, having spun free from his marker, turned in a right-footed effort from very close range having been found by a delightful cross from Liam McAlinden on the right wing.
Isak Hansen-Aaroen had a great opportunity to equalise just moments after play resumed having been teed up by Joe Hugill when the latter cushioned down a long-ball, yet his lobbed effort trickled wide of the post and let former United stopper Ben Foster off the hook with the now-40-year-old well off his line.
The lead was soon doubled by Hayden in the 36th minute. The centre-back rose high to meet Max Cleworth’s flick-on and head it into the top left corner following a cross from the right. Again, there was very little contest from a United defender towards the attacking players.
The two United full-backs restored their side with hope in stoppage time of the first half when Alvaro Fernandez swung in a cross from the left that was met by Jurado at the back post, with the right-back cushioning a volley tidily beyond Foster to potentially inspire a comeback.
All hopes of a comeback were soon quashed after the interval, however, when Gore was sent off for a challenge in the middle of the park. The 18-year-old, captaining the side on the day ahead of Evans, nearly twice his senior, lunged in with studs showing and the referee did not hesitate to pull out the red card.
Although, upon seeing replays, many supporters feel like it was a harsh sending off given that Gore made very little if not any contact whatsoever with the showing studs. In fact, it looked like the man lying in a heap on the floor, Andrew Cannon, had made more aggressive contact.
With the uphill task now seeming insurmountable, the game was only heading in one direction. This was epitomised when Dalby arrived late at the back post to finish the job with a header having been set up by Jacob Mendy in the 69th minute.
From then on, action came few and far between in the second half. The greatest positive to take from a viewing perspective for United fans is that Czech Republic goalkeeper Radek Vitek, French defender Willy Kambwala, English and Polish midfielders Sonny Aljofree and Maximillian Oyedele, as well as Columbian and English forwards Mateo Mejia and Charlie McNeill all got some minutes in the second forty-five.
Final Score: Manchester United 1-3 Wrexham (Jurado 45+6’) (Lee 29’, Hayden 36’, Dalby 69’)
Player ratings and lineups
First half: Nathan Bishop (5), Marc Jurado (6), Will Fish (5), Jonny Evans (5), Alvaro Fernandez (6), Toby Collier (5), Daniel Gore (5), Hannibal Mejbri (6), Shola Shoretire (5), Isak Hansen-Aaroen (5), Joe Hugill (5).
Second half: Radek Vitek (on 45’) (6), Marc Jurado (6), Will Fish (6), Jonny Evans (off 74’) (6), Alvaro Fernandez (6), Toby Collier (off 60’) (6), Daniel Gore (red card 47’) (5), Hannibal Mejbri (6), Shola Shoretire (off 68’) (6), Isak Hansen-Aaroen (off 60’) (6), Joe Hugill (off 68’) (6).
Second half substitutes: Willy Kambwala (on 74’) (6), Sonny Aljofree (on 60’) (6), Maximillian Oyedele (on 60’) (6), Mateo Mejia (on 68’) (6), Charlie McNeill (on 68’) (6).
Man of the match
It is very difficult to wax lyrical about any of the United players on what quickly became a tough day at the office. Both the full-backs in Fernandez and Jurado were gritty in their playstyle, but Mejbri has stood out to many fans as a shining light from the defeat.
It is encouraging that the 20-year-old shows the fight to win and succeed every time he pulls on the shirt, and he exemplified that in bucket loads during the friendly with Wrexham. He ran himself into the ground over the full ninety minutes whilst appealing a lot of decisions that did not go United’s way, from free-kicks and cards, right the way through to simple things like throw-ins.
The Tunisian international will be disappointed that he was unable to showcase his attacking talents as much as he would have liked on the big stage in San Diego, but many would argue that his determination to defend and get stuck in- ultimately sacrificing parts of his own game for the betterment of the team- exemplifies a different side to his game that fans did not perhaps expect to see on Wednesday morning.
The bigger picture
The result and performance, whilst disappointing, will not have come as a huge surprise to Ten Hag, Binnion, or onlooking fans.
As a lower-league side who have only just found their way into the fourth division, Wrexham are used to playing in a gritty, physical way that United’s youngsters will not be used to coming up against, or be used to being coached, either. Football fans rightfully say that the ‘long ball’ and ‘hit and hope era’ of the Premier League is gone, but it exists at the lower levels, and Wrexham simply gave United’s youngsters a lesson in English football heritage in the defeat.
Nevertheless, the experience will be one that serves United’s youngsters well; from facing up against a more traditional playing style, right the way through to being on a big stage in the United States of America, it is an invaluable experience that most youth footballers could only dream of. It is difficult to be critical or negative, on the whole.
The prominent question now revolves around what is done with each youngster. Obviously, not every single one is going to become a first team player. Some are at different ages and stages of their careers, too.
Notable players to keep an eye on include the likes of Mejbri and Fernandez, both 20, having been out on loan at Birmingham City and Preston North End in the Championship last season, respectively. Other players include the likes of Hugill and McNeill, who may hope for scarce opportunities next campaign amid the current lack of first team strikers in the squad. It would be difficult to overlook Gore, too, who despite his red card has proved one of the brightest sparks in pre-season so far.
Whether each players’ future lies with staying in the youth setup, a loan move away, a permanent transfer elsewhere, or perhaps even first team promotion, you would think that Binnion and Ten Hag have everything all planned out.
What is next?
Man United next face Real Madrid at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas at 01:30 (BST) on Thursday 27th July, with that game being played by the senior team as the second of the two back-to-back fixtures.
After that, United conclude their pre-season tour of the United States when they take on Borussia Dortmund at 02:00 (BST) on Monday 31st July at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada.