Wrexham’s first visit to Salford City’s Peninsula Stadium for an EFL fixture was well into the final quarter when the patience of the travelling supporters finally snapped.
“Parky, make a change! Parky, Parky, make a change!,” implored a sizeable number of the 1,368 fans who had made the short trip from north Wales to the west of Greater Manchester.
Whether the plea to manager Phil Parkinson referred to changing his personnel or the formation is open to debate. It was possibly both, such was the one-sided nature of a contest that had seen the promotion-chasing visitors bullied into submission by a team who hadn’t won at home in the league since October 7.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Wrexham’s 3-1 loss on Saturday is that the discontent on the terraces took until the 76th minute to manifest itself.
“The goal on half-time (by Sam Dalby, to cut Salford’s lead to 2-1) changed things,” said Parkinson when asked by The Athletic if he had been tempted to make substitutions earlier than the 80th minute when he did call the cavalry. “It got us back into it and changed my thoughts.”
Dalby’s close-range header did briefly spark memories of October’s 3-2 home win over Salford, when a two-goal deficit was overturned in thrilling fashion. But those hopes lasted just the 11 second-half minutes it took for Matt Smith to hook in his 19th goal of the season.
Thirty-six-year-old striker Steven Fletcher was brought off the bench for Dalby just after the hour but the hosts remained in control, prompting a bigger reshuffle for the final minutes as those fed-up Wrexham supporters were given their first glimpse of the two players signed on deadline day earlier in the week — forward Jack Marriott and midfielder Luke Bolton.
“We went to a diamond in the second half,” added Parkinson, who has now lost back-to-back league games for the first time since being appointed during the summer of 2021. “We’ve done that a lot.
“Marriott did well when he came on, looked bright and got in some good positions. But to make that system work, we have to have quality. We didn’t have enough and we have to be honest about that, and make sure we find a way to play better in these types of games.”
In a month where five of Wrexham’s seven games are on the road, a defeat as comprehensive as this was the worst possible start.
Not only did it continue the alarming disparity between their home and away records that has seen 43 goals and 35 points plundered at The Racecourse, compared to just 12 and 17 on their travels, but Salford also offered a blueprint as to how to unsettle Parkinson’s men that will not have gone unnoticed by the managers of their upcoming opponents.
Right from the start, the intention to press defenders Aaron Hayden, Ben Tozer and Jordan Tunnicliffe was clear to see, with Salford manager Karl Robinson matching the visitors man for man at the top of the pitch.
As can be seen in this still from moments before Salford won the corner that led to the opening goal for Theo Vassell, this three-man attack involved Smith (No 17) focusing on Tozer, as Junior Luamba (54) and Callum Morton (39) lined up against Tunnicliffe and Hayden respectively.
The benefits were two-fold against a defence understandably unsettled by the erratic decision-making of goalkeeper Arthur Okonkwo, who was culpable for the first two goals.
Wrexham’s back three were never given a moment’s rest in possession, which led to the ball getting launched aimlessly forward time and time again. And when that trio were called upon to defend, they would often be left isolated one-on-one, something Luamba in particular exploited well.
With the ball bypassing Wrexham’s midfield as a result and neither wing-back able to progress, particularly in the first half, Paul Mullin and Dalby were left to feed on scraps up front.
Things improved slightly after half-time. Andy Cannon’s composure on the ball gave Parkinson’s side a foothold in midfield but nowhere near enough to build up the sort of momentum shift that had led to the thrilling fightback against Salford in the reverse fixture.
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Lessons seemed to have been learned in the Salford camp from that dramatic collapse over the border.
Especially in terms of how best to disrupt Wrexham’s forwards via some rather cute play from central defensive pair Vassell and Curtis Tilt, who continually evaded the detection powers of referee Alex Chilowicz.
If the ball was in the air, a barely detectable nudge in the back of either Mullin, Dalby, Fletcher or later Marriott would invariably ensure a free header. Likewise, on the rare occasion Wrexham played the ball in behind the back line for the strikers to chase, both Vassell and Tilt would quickly block their path to ensure no way past other than by bundling them to the ground at the cost of a free kick.
Mullin and Dalby didn’t help themselves at times by being too far apart. A prime example came just before the half-hour mark, when Okonkwo’s goal kick had been flicked on by James McClean.
For once, Mullin got the better of marker Vassell to head the ball towards the penalty area. He looked round expectantly, hoping to see his partner charging through on goal. However, as the below image shows, Dalby was 25 or so yards away at the time, in no position to capitalise, leading Mullin to turn away with an exasperated look before belatedly chasing after his own would-be assist.
As the ball rolled harmlessly into the gloves of Alex Cairns, Vassell repeated his trick of blocking Mullin’s path by stepping in front of him as he arrived on the edge of the penalty area.
The result was a flashpoint that confirmed Wrexham had been dragged into the scrap home boss Robinson had seemed intent on creating all along in front of Salford’s record league crowd of 4,591.
Two weeks earlier, Newport County had done something similar on an equally challenging pitch at Rodney Parade to triumph 1-0 over their countrymen.
A pattern is developing in League Two and Wrexham, with their impressive array of attacking talent, need to find a way to avoid falling into this trap in the future.
Otherwise, February — with those potentially awkward trips to Sutton United, Milton Keynes Dons, Gillingham and Forest Green Rovers still to come — could yet prove pivotal in their push for back-to-back promotions… for all the wrong reasons.
(Top photo: Ian Hodgson/PA Images via Getty Images)