Late on Saturday afternoon, after snaking their way through the well-heeled streets which surround Stamford Bridge, a convoy of coaches brought the manger and his players back to the scene of that address - the away dressing room at Chelsea where, a little over a year earlier, a series of reminders about the club’s principles and ethos had helped them claim a draw after being two goals down at the break.
If Wilder hoped the surroundings would stir something in his team he was mistaken as a combination of the hosts’ attacking flair, Hakim Ziyech’s brilliance and some forgettable pieces of defending saw an evening which had begun in promising fashion end in disappointment.
United teased their manager by becoming the first side to score against the hosts since the middle of last month, when David McGoldrick’s clever back heel ensured a series of enterprising attacks did not go to waste. But Tammy Abraham and Ben Chilwell ensured Chelsea led at the break, before further efforts from Thiago Silva and Timo Werner left United still searching for their first win since beating Frank Lampard’s side on home soil in July.
The fact Lampard described this as the “best performance” of Chelsea’s campaign so far was a small consolation for Wilder, who later attempted to introduce some perspective into the debate surroudning United’s form by reminding McGoldick was signed “on a free from Ipswich” while Oliver Giroud, introduced by Lampard during the closing stages, “is a World Cup winner for France.”
“I understand the competition,” Wilder said, reminding his squad’s fate “won’t be decided” by results against Chelsea, Manchester City or reigning champions Liverpool, who they have also faced in recent weeks.
THE SEASON SO FAR IN MICROCOSM
Although it would be foolish to judge United on the evidence of a contest against opponents Wilder believes pose the only serious threat to the squads assembled by Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, events in west London highlighted why his men should be both hopeful of survival yet concerned about their prospects.
Positive and purposeful at the beginning, swarming over Chelsea and producing some fluent, crisp passing, they were undone by a stroke of good fortune on Abraham’s part before basic errors and carelessness touches aloowed Ziyech to impose himself. For long periods, until Chelsea seized the initiative, United didn’t look like a team destined for relegation. They didn’t feel or sound like one either, with John Egan and Chris Basham cajoling their colleagues after Chilwell pounced.
However, Jack O’Connell’s absence, coupled with United’s failure to replace him during the summer transfer window, was a mistake which must be rectified when the market reopens. It is difficult to imagine the cross Ziyech delivered into United’s area which Chilwell turned home, or the corner Silva converted for Chelsea’s third, not being intercepted had O’Connell been on the pitch.
To cover his absence, Wilder has been forced to move Enda Stevens, on his day one of the best wing-backs in England, to centre-half. With no ready-made replacement available, United’s solution to the problem caused by O’Connell’s injury has created another.
HOPE BUT ALSO FEAR
Basham identified United’s comeback here at the beginning of last term as the moment when, fresh from securing promotion, they truly knew they belonged at the highest level.
This proved to be a much more sobering experience, with Ziyech the architect of a result which saw Chelsea climb to third and left the visitors bottom. After taking only a point from their opening eight games, United have now made the joint worst start to a top-flight campaign since Sunderland in 2014. The fact Gus Poyet’s side avoided the drop will provide them with some encouragement.
Likewise, the knowledge Southampton also hauled themselves to safety after finding themselves in the same predicament five years earlier. Wilder, though, acknowledged that United have plenty of work to do if they are to replicate those achievements.
PRESS THE RESET BUTTON
The fixture planners have not been United’s friends over the autumn period. After heading to Anfield towards the end of last month, Wilder’s men then faced City before travelling to the capital.
This match, against the last club to wrestle the Premier League trophy away from the North-West, appeared the easiest assignment of the trilogy when the schedule was first published. That was until Lampard spent the summer hoovering-up some of Europe’s best attacking talent - adding Kai Havertz, Werner and Ziyech to a group already boasting the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Abraham and Christian Pulisic.
“If anyone’s going to push those two,” Wilder predicted beforehand, describing Liverpool and City as being “head and shoulders” above the rest, “It’s Chelsea.”
United heeded that message early on, stifling their creativity with a cocktail of industry and invention. But, as the action unfolded, Chelsea gnawed away at their confidence, profiting from a slice of luck when Abraham’s scruffy connection on Mateo Kovacic’s cross sent the ball spiralling past Aaron Ramsdale after McGoldrick had broken the deadlock.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE INDIFFERENT
McGoldrick’s strike was United at their best, with George Baldock and Oliver Norwood exchanging passes before he produced a delightful piece of improvisation when Sander Berge’s shot flew into his path - becoming the first player to score against Chelsea for nearly six-and-a-half hours in the process.
After Abraham had restored parity, Max Lowe seemed unaware of Chilwell’s presence when Ziyech’s centre swept across United’s area, before Silva beat Ramsdale to a corner after the interval. Werner rounded off the scoring when Lowe’s tackle ended with the ball falling kindly for the German.
“We were in the game until the 75 minute mark,” Wilder lamented. “Then we turned things over and, if you do that against world class players, you get hurt.”