The Sir Alex Ferguson mantra that this latest Manchester United vintage are all about the attacking players was illustrated here in a helter-skelter exchange that finished, not without a few scares, with the correct victors.

Of the perpetual motion of a forward line that featured Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck, who all scored, the Scot said: "They had flexible roles today and it all depends on their movement. If we can get that we will be a handful for teams. It was good to see Wayne get off the mark [for the season]. The kind of movement we saw between Wayne and Robin bothers teams. It is good they are starting to gel. It was a very fluid move for our equalising goal. Robin put in a cross and it was fantastic header by Wayne.

"There is no doubt our attacking play is the best part of the team at the moment. Our forwards got us out of trouble again because our defending has been slack."

Before ending the contest at a relative trot, United's problem was space, and the amount allowed Stoke when Tony Pulis's side moved forward. After Rooney's 27th-minute own goal and Charlie Adam's shot that hit David de Gea's right post, there came an illustration. Stoke stroked a few passes around before Steven N'Zonzi turned into hectares of grass and accelerated into enemy territory. As Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, United's nominated midfield shield, back-pedalled they watched as a cross was set up for Peter Crouch that Rio Ferdinand did just enough with to kill.

The first of the two Rooney goals he scored in the opening half came after Scholes had dropped the lively Michael Kightly near the corner flag. Adam floated the ball in and with Ryan Shawcross lurking, Rooney stole in to head beyond a helpless De Gea.

On the evidence presented here, Stoke's ability to play the creative stuff should now miss the patronising surprise, or caveats. One move featured balletic footwork that included a Peter Crouch back-heel inside United's area before Jon Walters's shot forced De Gea to make the save.

Although any suggestion Ferguson's men would become their swashbuckling best was hampered by an infirmity when dispossessed, they were easing into a higher gear. A Patrice Evra flicked pass with the outside of a boot found Welbeck. He motored 40 yards down the left in a blur before slipping a ball to Van Persie, whose instant return opened up Asmir Begovic's goal, but Welbeck's effort skidded wide. Rooney's second of the stanza involved, inevitably, the Dutchman. Playing in the No10 slot behind the Liverpudlian, he peeled left to deliver a curving ball that found Rooney rising to crash home a header even more impressive than his unfortunate opener.

Van Persie also had the final say of the period. A so far quiet Antonio Valencia collected on the right before his cross proved a bullet that found the target via the striker's boot, and that took the count to 2-1. Less than a minute of the restart was required to widen the margin. Rooney leant into a delivery from the right that removed the Stoke defence and found Welbeck's head: it was now 3-1.

Rooney had become dazzling with the ball and, on occasion, without it. A split-second decision to execute a dummy allowed Van Persie to race at goal and the corner was conceded. When this was taken, the ball eventually broke to the England man, who flipped in a cross that Jonny Evans saw Begovic scramble frantically to claw away.

Stoke's early dominance had appeared to evaporate completely before Kightly ripped United apart by running straight at them. Carrick came over and was in position for the challenge but backed off – this left Ferdinand, and when the ball unluckily back-heeled off his boot Kightly left him, and Evans, trailing as he finished.

The Rooney-Van Persie axis was next up again in this topsy-turvy contest. The Dutchman's corner was missed by a host of Stoke defenders and when the ball rolled to Rooney a left-foot shot closed the afternoon's scoring.

Pulis said: "Rooney, Welbeck, Van Persie are top, top players, that's why they're a top team."