It comes to something when Sir Alex Ferguson gets all sentimental about Arsène Wenger, but the distinct lack of genuine competition his side have encountered these past few weeks appears to have left him feeling that way.
Ferguson was reminiscing in his programme notes about "old times before Chelsea muscled in on the act" when Arsenal and United would take it in turns to go top of the Premier League. Much as Wenger had been relishing "the last question mark" which Arsenal's trip to Liverpool yesterday represented, the United manager evidently cannot wait to try out his new strike force against Wenger's side on Saturday.
The gulf in class against Middlesbrough made some sense of those feelings. Though Ferguson did his best to whip up some interest in the visitors – harking back in his notes to Gareth Southgate's comments about Cristiano Ronaldo's theatrics, which led him to call the Middlesbrough manager "naïve" last season – the only gymnastics Boro glimpsed was the lustrous triple pike with tuck performed by Nani after he had fired a 25-yard right-foot shot past the back-pedalling Mark Schwarzer in the third minute
Ferguson also drew an eye-catching comparison between Ronaldo and Sir Stanley Matthews – "special players whom fans want to see play ... rather than kicked out of the game." Talk after the game also turned to the Wayne Rooney-Carlos Tevez axis, which had provided three of the goals. But let no words detract from the role played on Saturday by Rooney alone.
The left-footed back-heel which teed up Tevez to put United's third beyond Schwarzer in the Boro goal was the most outrageous piece of skill: Rooney's eyes were fixed somewhere on the Stretford End when he delivered it, picking out the Argentine almost by osmosis at the culmination of a giddying, five-pass move also involving Owen Hargreaves and Anderson.
It is the danger Rooney poses even on the edge of his own penalty area which also takes the breath away. Two of his 50-yard passes sent Ronaldo skipping away down the left, before Rooney went in for a spot of do-it-yourself, bulldozing through the visitors' midfield and central defence and retaining the balance to squeeze a pass to Tevez to complete the rout. Rooney, with eight goals in seven games for United and England, blossoms by the week. His was a highlights show all of its own.
Southgate did not have any specific theories on how on earth, as a former defender, he might have dealt with Rooney, but his convictions about the way his young team plays – expansively and creatively, not plugging the midfield – will foster hopes that he can survive a torrid test which has seen his side collect one point in 18. "We are not defending well enough to sit and soak up pressure," Southgate said, with a candour as refreshing as a starting XI that had included the England Under-21 internationals Andrew Taylor and Lee Cattermole.
"There's an ongoing change at the club in the past 18 months," he added. "We've got to be realistic about how soon that change can take place."
With Bolton and Tottenham up next, he and his chairman, Steve Gibson, may soon know more about the time frame, but for now they seem to have losers' luck. Two fateful touches from Stewart Downing – a header he placed wide at 1-1 and the hesitation in the Boro area which let Rooney in 10 minutes later – might just have changed the script as United allowed Tuncay Sanli a dangerous amount of space in the first half.
For United, the uncertainties surround only how many records will fall with the team in this form. The Manchester Evening News needed to do a surprising amount of digging back to discover that Billy Meredith was playing when the side last scored four or more in four successive matches, 100 years ago. We will know in five days' time if United's mood – and Ferguson's sentimentality – can really last.
Goals: Nani (3) 1-0; Aliadière (6) 1-1; Rooney (33) 2-1; Tevez (55) 3-1; Tevez (85) 4-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand (Pique, 73), Vidic, O'Shea; Ronaldo, Hargreaves (Fletcher, 66), Anderson (Giggs, 78), Nani; Rooney, Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Simpson.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Young, Woodgate, Wheater, Taylor; O'Neil, Cattermole (Boateng, 89), Rochemback, Downing; Aliadière (Hutchinson, 56), Tuncay (Lee, 80). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Hines.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Middlesbrough Cattermole, Rochemback.
Man of the match: Rooney.
Attendance: 75,720.Reuse content