A grinning Wayne Rooney lingered on the grass for a while and was the last man to leave the pitch, strolling away in easy conversation with Carlton Cole like he owned the place. This was a Rooney who had just spent the afternoon in midfield, precisely the location which antagonised him so much when Sir Alex Ferguson asked him to play there. The powers to recover the Rooney we once knew are the singular most remarkable aspect of the David Moyes era.
He has now made more assists – eight – than any other player in the Premier League this season and though the goalscoring has not quite reached the rapacious levels of Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero, the contribution has been more complete. Manchester United winning the battle to keep him has been every bit as significant as Liverpool holding on to Suarez.
“Do you know what I see more than anything in Wayne? I see leadership,” the United manager reflected after a 3-1 win which felt like a restoration of the old United, too, despite West Ham United’s anaemia. “I see somebody who wants to take responsibility for the team. I see somebody who cares for how he plays and how the team plays.
“Maybe if he is not quite at the top of his form, I will need him to drop in at times and he has no problem doing any of the jobs. He is getting to an age now where he realises he is not a boy any more. I think he is saying: ‘I have got to take responsibility for results and for performances and make sure the players are doing it on the pitch’.”
That felt like a fair assessment, though the entire balance of the team was transformed from the dismal defeat to Newcastle United of two weeks ago which left you wondering how Moyes might turn things around. The midfield four that day felt flat, old fashioned and ill-suited to Phil Jones – too immobile for that set up.
Saturday’s more flexible system – a less flat midfield quartet – played to Jones’s defensive prowess, allowing Tom Cleverley to head off and create with Rooney. Moyes quite reasonably said it was the best we had seen from his team in the Premier League. There was a tempo which has been missing before.
The opposition hardly permits a detailed critique of United’s central defence but in the 10th successive game without the Rio Ferdinand/Nemanja Vidic partnership there was a security about Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, who has found his level after a difficult start to the Moyes era.
“I said to [Evans] I didn’t think he started the season well. But he has grown into it and is playing very well,” Moyes said. Smalling looked assured, too; beginning several of the counter-attacking moves which saw United burst out like days of yore. His quality on the ball creates a sense that he should seize it more.
Moyes is reaping the benefits of that onerous string of early fixtures he was so unhappy about, while others chasing top-four places are busy playing each other. United’s only uncertainties about Christmas have been logistical. They go to Hull and Norwich this week, and Moyes considered travelling directly between the two cities. He decided against it, reflecting that three days on the road would not have delighted his players.
Sam Allardyce has far more to worry about. It’s never great when your supporters sing: “You’re nothing special; we lose every week” and the West Ham manager’s suggestion that money is the issue – “where you actually finish in the league depends on the money you’ve spent. It’s a statistical fact that” – doesn’t wash. West Ham were 11th in the list of summer spenders, though wages generally dictate the finishing position.
“It makes no difference to me – other results. They are neither here nor there,” Allardyce was in the process of saying as he walked into his Old Trafford press conference. But though the return of Stewart Downing, Ricardo Vaz Te, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll may, as he says, make a difference, other results are beginning to matter a lot. On Saturday, West Ham were dismal.