The fixture at Southampton, effectively settled by two Che Adams strikes after John Lundstram had opened the scoring, exposed the strengths and perhaps more importantly the weaknesses of the visitors’ squad. Indeed, one member of the manager’s inner circle privately described it as Project Restart in microcosm.
If Wilder had been in any doubt about how to prioritise the items sitting in his in-tray ahead of the new campaign, which is scheduled to begin in only five weeks time, events inside St Mary’s will have helped him decide. After watching a series of first half chances go begging before Adams stamped his authority on proceedings and Danny Ings netted a late penalty, Wilder’s suspicions that United must become more clinical were confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt. Likewise, as his team visibly tired during the closing stages of the match, that greater depth is also required in order to prevent the 2020/21 programme from becoming a long, hard and potentially dispiriting slog.
“We know where we’ve got to improve and where we’ve got to be better,” Wilder said, bemoaning the fact United weren’t already “out of sight” when Adams first pounced. “To be honest, that’s everywhere because if you think you’ve cracked it, then football has a very nasty habit of biting you on the a**e. Obviously, though, there are some areas that require a little more work than others.”
With the Steelphalt Academy recently experiencing a series of personnel changes, as Wilder looks to impose his personality on all aspects of the club, the transfer market provides the only immediate solution to the numbers problems. The 52-year-old does not like working with bloated rosters, believing they are detrimental to spirit behind the scenes. But clearly, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing football to rewrite its timetables, United need more options at their disposal. Although Wilder used more players than nine of his top-flight counterparts en route to a superb ninth placed finish, the majority of these changes came in attack rather than a defence where, thanks to the intricacies of their tactical system, the likes of Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell, George Baldock and Enda Stevens have spent the past 12 months making lung-busting runs up and down the pitch. It was no surprise, given the pressures associated with being an elite level footballer, that O’Connell succumbed to injury before the trip to Hampshire.
“Listen, the Championship is tough,” Wilder, appointed when United were still a League One club, acknowledged. “Any decent standard of football is.
“But trust me, it’s much tougher in the Premier League because of the distances you’ve got to cover, the high intensity runs you’ve got to make and obviously because of the standard of the opposition you’re facing - so there’s that concentration aspect, that psychological aspect, as well."
“In the old days, well probably not that long ago to be fair, you used to hear people saying they’d be able to bully and intimidate an old First Division side if they drew them in one of the cups.” Wilder continued. “That’s just not the case anymore. You are talking, clearly, about some of the best footballers in the world and supreme athletes as well.”
Players like Ben Osborn, signed ostensibly to provide competition in midfield but who is also capable of operating at wing-back, offer Wilder the best chance of addressing this deficiency whilst remaining within a recruitment budget reduced when the global health crisis forced games to be staged behind closed doors. Matty Cash, Osborn’s former team mate at Nottingham Forest, is also a dual role player and has attracted interest from Bramall Lane.
A much more intractable problem, however, is improving United’s returns in front of goal. Aston Villa and West Ham, who both diced with relegation, and AFC Bournemouth who were eventually consigned to the drop, all scored more than United during the course of the season. Despite being proud of its achievements, Wilder will not want his side to become overly-reliant on its defence. Particularly, if Dean Henderson does return to Manchester United following his loan spell in South Yorkshire, United are required to integrate a new goalkeeper into their rearguard.
Wilder is not unhappy with the attackers at his disposal - although Lys Mousset, now on leave back in France, has obviously been a source of considerable frustration in recent months. He does, however, accept that that Oli McBurnie must continue to improve after growing in maturity from June onwards. Previously of Swansea City, the Scotland international has been on target six times since leaving the Liberty Stadium last summer. Wilder wants McBurnie to reach double figures next term, while David McGoldrick must also contribute more despite winning an army of admirers for the intelligence of his build up play. If Mousset does return - in shape, in focus and free of distractions - then he is eminently capable of scoring 10 goals and more.
Given the costs associated with acquiring a proven PL marksman, United must rely on good coaching to address this issue.
“Everyone has to get better, ourselves as staff included,” Wilder said. “No one can sit still. We’ve sat down, and we’ll look at how we did - the things we did well and the areas we can do better. That’s the process.”