The scoreline may not have been as convincing as David Moyes would have liked but this was a much brighter Manchester United performance and a valuable three points. Wayne Rooney was lively and involved in almost everything, Shinji Kagawa slotted in with typical neatness, even if he was indecisive in front of goal, and at times United went forward with something like the verve of old.

The only nagging doubt, as with Manchester City in Moscow, is that better quality opposition will make more of their chances against sides who cannot score enough goals. Real Sociedad certainly had opportunities here and for the second match in a row Moyes was concerned at his team's inability to hold the ball in midfield and to put a game to bed.

The Manchester United manager was criticised for defensive substitutions after the draw against Southampton in the Premier League and has begun to field questions about Javier Hernández's future at the club in addition to Kagawa's, so he gave both a start against the Basque visitors. With Robin van Persie rested to recover from minor injuries Hernández partnered Rooney up front while Kagawa took over on the left from Adnan Januzaj. But, with Ryan Giggs partnering Michael Carrick in central midfield, Moyes still seemed to be hedging his bets.

It was even being unkindly suggested that Van Persie and Januzaj were being kept fresh for the big game against Stoke City on Saturday, yet whatever line-up Moyes had selected would have attracted some sort of sniping criticism. After 11 competitive games the new manager has arrived at the stage where he needs his players to do the talking for him and come up with some results. And yes, Sir Alex Ferguson did find time in his busy book-promoting schedule to take his seat in the stand.

What Moyes and United wanted most was an early boost, something to settle the nerves, and they got it so early it was almost comical. Less than two minutes had elapsed when Rooney turned Markel Bergara inside out in the penalty area in what was United's first attack, calmly making room for a shot that rebounded from an upright straight into the path of Iñigo Martínez, arriving on the scene to help out Bergara but succeeding only in prodding the ball into his own goal. "It was a terrible mistake, a disastrous goal to concede," the Real Sociedad manager, Jagoba Arrasate, said. "We never really got our game together after that." United could have had a second goal after another 10 minutes when Claudio Bravo made the first save of the game, stopping a Rooney shot on the line after Rafael da Silva had crossed from the right.

Jonny Evans had suggested United need to raise the level of their performance after the Southampton game and encouraged by a dream start they seemed to be doing just that, passing more crisply, attacking more forcefully and utilising the whole width of the pitch. Rooney was too high with a somewhat ambitious overhead effort from Antonio Valencia's cross midway through the first half, before Hernández beat Bravo with a header only to be correctly recalled for offside.

Real Sociedad did not look quite as well organised and tenacious as Southampton but after the last league game United were fully aware that a single goal is never a comfortable lead and, just in case, Moyes underlined the point in his programme notes. David de Gea also needed to issue a reminder in the form of a one-handed save to keep out a Haris Seferovic shot, after the referee had allowed play to continue when the United defence was expecting a free-kick for what looked like a foul on Giggs. In the event United were a shade lucky to be still leading at half-time, for De Gea knew little about a terrific free-kick from Antoine Griezmann at the end of the half that thumped against his crossbar from the edge of the area.

When Kagawa joined Rafael in the referee's book just before the interval the home fans grumbled because the official took his time in producing a card and seemed to be influenced by a shrill and sustained protest from the Spanish fans in the East Stand.

The United singing section, making its debut in a corner of the ground at the same end, was outshouted on that occasion but otherwise kept up a steady vocal support without picking up much backing from the rest of the stadium and was eventually reduced to imploring the Stretford End to join in. Whether the United hierarchy wanted or expected to hear "There's only one Keano" this particular week is open to question, though in fairness just about everyone else from the last 20 years got a mention.

United survived a scare at the start of the second half when Seferovic made inroads down the right and Evans produced a clearance that could have resulted in an own-goal, before United went straight down the pitch and Phil Jones was denied by a combination of goalkeeper and far post from Kagawa's left-wing cross.

In a game in which the woodwork was rattled on a regular basis, Alberto de la Bella almost caught De Gea with a shot that grazed the bar at one end and Valencia struck the base of the post at the other. The Ecuadorian sensibly tried to make sure with his next opportunity, unselfishly squaring for what looked certain to be a Kagawa goal, yet the chance went begging when the midfielder took a touch instead of shooting first time.

By the time Rooney blazed over from a good position United were unquestionably making life hard for themselves in failing to take advantage of some ordinary defending. They ought to have made the game safe when Rooney and Ashley Young failed to profit from a two-on-one situation four minutes from time and again when Giggs sent Kagawa away. But though wastefulness can never be a virtue, Moyes can probably put up with it in return for three points and the knowledge that Van Persie will soon be back.