Delight for Moyes as 'leader' Rooney calls the tune
Manchester Utd 3 West Ham Utd 1
A GRINNING Wayne Rooney lingered on the grass for a while and was the last man to leave the arena, 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 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 Old Trafford era so far.
Rooney has now made more assists -- 10 -- than any other player in the Premier League and, though the goalscoring has not quite reached the rapacious levels of Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero, his contribution has been more complete.
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 Manchester United manager reflected after a win which also felt like a restoration of the old United 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 anymore.
"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'. He certainly is doing exactly that," added Moyes.
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 this around.
The midfield four that day felt flat, old-fashioned and ill suited to Phil Jones, who is too immobile for that set-up.
Saturday's more flexible system -- a less flat midfield quartet -- played to Jones' defensive prowess, allowing a more comfortable 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 and 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 didn't think Jonny 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 and be on it more.
Particularly in the first half, there was a snap and pace to United's movement, a fluency in their passing, a sharpness in their finishing. The return of Rafael has given them real drive down the right flank, while Antonio Valencia is coming back into form, tormenting George McCartney to the point where the full-back put in a challenge on the substitute Javier Hernandez that was not so much an act of frustration as savagery.
There was even another goal -- and a cracker too, curled from the edge of the West Ham area -- from Ashley Young. Things really are on the up.
But the fountainhead of all the evident improvement was Rooney. After a summer of discontent, he has been in superb form recently, the one constant as United have stuttered and stalled.
Full of invention, he set up both Young and Danny Welbeck for goals with perfectly weighted passes. So good was his performance, he was not so much running the game as conducting it. In this company, Rooney is a senior presence. Patrice Evra apart, he was the oldest head among the callow representatives of what looked very much like the next team to emerge from Old Trafford.
Perhaps in his new role as elder statesman, he might have a word with Adnan Januzaj, whose brilliance threatens to be compromised by a propensity to take flight in the attempt to gain advantage.
In addition to a beautifully taken goal here, when he ghosted past James Collins as if he were a training ground bollard, the teenaged flier was also booked for a dive of such fraudulence even Young might have baulked at trying it on.
If Rooney can persuade him to cut that from his game, then this will be some player. One who, according to Moyes, has an unexpected future.
"I think Januzaj has said he has picked Scotland," the manager joked when asked whether the youngster had yet decided to commit himself internationally. Two weeks ago, the idea of finishing his press duties to the sound of laughter was remote. But on Saturday, as Moyes bounced away grinning, positivity abounded.
And perhaps the biggest source of optimism for the manager lies in the fixture list. While United face four teams from the lower half of the division over the holiday period, the sides in the Champions League positions above them all have at least two games against another top-six side.
As others share their spoils, Moyes' team have the festive opportunity to seal their recovery by overtaking their way back into contention. Do that, and the chuckling may become routine in the new year.
Sam Allardyce has far more to worry about. It's never great when your supporters sing: "You're nothing special; we lose every week". (© Independent News Service)