Rooney rules Britannia
The situation has been vacant for many a year. Given their considerable success in that time, it has only really cost them on a handful of occasions, but Manchester United have not had a midfield general - one of the rare breed who allies physical power and technical skill, goalscoring ability and real authority. Even if only for 90 minutes against a slumping, sorry Stoke side, they had one.
He is a striker by trade. Nevertheless, there is a school of thought that if Wayne Rooney is to have a future and retain his prominence at Old Trafford, he may have to reinvent himself. It will take more than one game against Stoke and he will have to excel against better midfielders than Glenn Whelan and Steven Nzonzi to be relocated permanently, but he made a compelling case. "He was brilliant," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "I thought a spell in midfield would do him the world of good and it worked for us."
Because, just as he had done the last time United lost a Manchester derby at Old Trafford, Ferguson's response was to drop Rooney into a deeper role for a seemingly tricky trip. October 2011's visit to Goodison Park was awkward, but April 2013's visit to Stoke all too easy. The consequence is that United have restored their 15-point lead. They could be crowned champions next Monday should Manchester City slip up in the meantime.
For Robin van Persie, who joined United in order to win the title, one wait has already been ended. His two-month, 750-minute goal drought was finally concluded, to the Dutchman's delight. Rooney spent much of the afternoon directing probing passes into the channels for the Dutchman to run onto. From one, Van Persie turned sharply, was upended clumsily by Andy Wilkinson and converted coolly from the penalty spot. A memorable celebration followed, the top scorer flying along the touchline and into the arms of his manager. It was a more forceful hug than expected. "He nearly killed me," Ferguson said. "He forgets I'm 71. For all strikers, and I was one myself, you go through spells when you are not scoring and thinking you will never get a goal. Then when you are scoring you never think you are going to miss."
Van Persie sealed a win that had appeared assured after Michael Carrick's fourth-minute opener. Thereafter, Rooney controlled the midfield, twice threatening from long range and breaking intelligently from his own half. Van Persie, also dropped deeper in the reshuffle that allowed Javier Hernandez to lead the line, was another to relish the greater freedom he was afforded. He was the designated No. 10; two other men who covet that role, Rooney and Shinji Kagawa, were accommodated in the midfield. What looked an unusual team on paper gelled on the pitch.
Lacking specialist central midfielders and wingers, the imbalance in United's squad nevertheless hasn't prevented them from winning 26 of their 32 league games. Lacking goals, Stoke's slide continues. A team who were a fixture in the top eight in the first half of the season now have to be concerned they will end up in the bottom three.
"It's a five-game season now," manager Tony Pulis said. Stoke's five-year stay in the Premier League has been defined by set-pieces. So, in a different way, was their sixth defeat in seven games. Those paragons of organisation and obduracy were undone at a corner.
Supposed strengths are deserting them. It was a microcosm of their troubles in 2013, a year when a team who excelled at doing the basics have been making uncharacteristic errors. This was a scruffy, scrappy goal by an elegant footballer as Carrick became the first United player to score since Rooney against Reading four weeks earlier after Van Persie's set-piece came off Phil Jones. "The first goal kills us," Pulis added. "It was a poor goal to concede." Perhaps the still more damning detail was that the unmarked Patrice Evra could have scored from a second corner.
Stoke's set-piece threat was rather less. Charlie Adam drew a diving save from David de Gea, even if he was intending to find a team-mate, but the Scot's contributions were cheered. Selected to start for the first time since January, he has become a cause celebre as dissent against Pulis grows. So too Michael Owen, summoned for a rare cameo.
The reality, however, is that neither is trusted. Adam started as the supplementary striker, the role Owen wants. With Rooney in United's midfield and Adam in Stoke's attack, there was a strange role reversal.
Stoke, however, are simply going backwards, threatening to retreat to the Championship after five seasons as the Premier League's awkward squad. Over the years, they have delighted in troubling the favourites, struggling only at home against one. Because, yet again, United ruled at the Britannia.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney. His unselfishness and competitive spirit equips him to play in midfield in such matches but Rooney provided real quality with his passing. Ferguson, meanwhile, said he was chosen there because "he needs a little boost in his confidence".
STOKE VERDICT: The statistics are demoralising. No one has taken fewer points in 2013. Reading are the only team Stoke have defeated. Meanwhile, the teams below and around them are picking up points. It means April 27's home game against Norwich is assuming huge proportions. With Stoke conceding soft goals and giving Rooney too much room in midfield, it does not bode well. Nor, as they are the division's lowest scorers, does their output going forward.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Hugely professional. Unlike many of his counterparts, Ferguson has never complained about Stoke's style of play. Instead, United adapt. The fit-again Nemanja Vidic dealt well with the aerial ball while Jones, shifted to right-back, added height to the back four. They controlled the game, with Rooney combining rather better with Carrick than Ryan Giggs had done in the Manchester derby.