Where there is Wayne Rooney there is hope. In this season of fluctuating United fortunes, with David Moyes desperately seeking to establish an identity he can call his own, it was Rooney who reminded the world what Manchester United are all about.
This was a match United might have won by a hatful, yet could have only drawn. But throughout the 90 minutes there was a constant thread of excellence driving the red line. Rooney made the only goal of the night and was a constant source of menace.
The first half hour was arguably the best we have seen from United in the era of Moyes, a speed of movement and purpose that has been mostly absent tearing Sociedad to pieces. Rooney was given strong support from Shinji Kagawa, who stayed on for 90 minutes and gave his best display since the hat-trick against Norwich. Striker Javier Hernandez also impressed.
The thought that Rooney might have been unsettled by the talk surrounding Sir Alex Ferguson’s newly-released book was dealt with inside two minutes with a jinking run of brilliant dexterity that ended with a rasping shot against the post. From the rebound, the unfortunate Inigo Martinez accidentally planted the ball into his own net.
Moyes had been waiting all week for an opportunity to set the agenda in Manchester and here it was, a goal fashioned by United’s best player of the early part of the season putting some welcome substance between the present and the past as remembered by Ferguson.
Moyes had in his selection met the obligation to give Kagawa a spin. The Japanese attacking midfielder has not been the compelling figure he might have been yet, but in a season in which United have yet to convince, there seemed little value in ignoring the clamour from the stands for him to have a run-out.
The Champions League has been something of a release for Moyes, with a comfortable win over Bayer Leverkusen and a solid draw in Shakhtar Donetsk.
But Spanish opposition has always proved problematic in this precinct and after victory over Valencia on Saturday, Sociedad arrived with a result that better reflected some of their recent domestic play. Six La Liga games without a victory was always unrepresentative – only Barcelona gave them a mauling.
Perhaps it was their misfortune to run into a United side powered by an irresistible Rooney and a new desire to establish their own post-Ferguson credentials. Sociedad appeared dizzied by the pace and power of United’s early attacks. In the absence of Robin Van Persie, Hernandez was an electric presence in the front line and Rooney was lethal behind.
Claudio Bravo was at full stretch to deny him in the 13th minute and would have been an observer had he connected better with an attempted overhead kick five minutes later. That Rooney was minded to swivel so dramatically was a measure of the confidence that is back in his game.
Antonio Valencia gave the impression of a man on his first day of freedom after being wrongly imprisoned. He tormented Sociedad down the right, taking his man apart on the inside and out. Hernandez thought he had doubled the lead off another Valencia cross only to see the flag raised for offside.
Where has this United been? Moyes would argue it has always been there. It was always just a matter of being patient.
David de Gea made his first save of the night 15 minutes before the break, palming a decent effort from Haris Seferovic for a corner. De Gea is maturing nicely into the brick wall United hoped he would be after Edwin van der Sar’s departure. In front of him Phil Jones and Jonny Evans were quick to stifle what little danger presented itself. As the half was drawing to a close Ryan Giggs reprised his youth with a rasping break down the left.
A neat exchange with the ever- willing Kagawa released the Welshman at pace into the kind of space he used to own. It was all Markel Bergara could do to bring him down, for which he went straight into the book.
Then Antoine Griezmann reminded United that with the score at 1-0 Sociedad might still be a nuisance, smashing a free-kick against the bar.
There was danger too at the start of the second half with Sociedad setting a frantic tempo. Evans twice came between Sociedad and an equaliser – once mindfully, the other appearing not to really know where the ball was actually going.
Three shots on goal in the opening 45 minutes became eight in the first seven of the second, and suddenly the uncertainty of the opening weeks of the season began to resurface amongst the Old Trafford faithful.
De Gea had to be alert to keep out a shot-cum cross from Alberto de la Bella before United responded with a rapid counter that released Valencia, who brought a smart save from Bravo. Two minutes later Valencia was again set free by a perfectly weighted pass from Rooney, only to see his shot come back off a post. A cut-back may have been a better option.
United had broken the Sociedad spell. Only Kagawa can answer how United were not two to the good in the 65th minute, taking a pass from Valencia and a touch when a first time shot would surely have been a more profitable choice.
The result leaves United a point clear at the top of group A meaning a victory over Shakhtar, losers in Leverkusen, will ensure a safe passage into the knockout stages. Moyes has spent his career yearning for a shot at this competition and so far it has given him his best moments since his appointment.
That is not a bad development at a club whose identity is so closely bound to European nights, if not all like this. A win by any means will generally do. but this one was better and more substantial than the score suggests and might yet prove a turning point in what has proved a difficult dawn.
Ferguson never tired of pedalling the myth that it was part of United’s make-up do it the hard way. Perhaps out of deference to the great man, they were true to that idea.
Man of match Rooney.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee Bas Nijhuis (Netherlands).