It is starting to feel like Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson have swapped tactics. While Manchester City are rolling opponents aside with the sort of freescoring approach that has long been part of United's DNA, Ferguson's players are grinding out the 1-0 victories that Mancini used to cherish.
This was United's third in succession in the Premier League and prompted Darren Fletcher to suggest that the defensive surgery applied in the wake of their humiliating derby defeat may have blunted their attacking threat.
Fletcher described the five consecutive clean sheets that United have racked up since City hit them for six at Old Trafford as "fantastic", yet the Scotland international acknowledged that the balance between defence and attack is not quite right at the moment. "After the Man City game we had to address the situation [in terms of] conceding goals and we did that. I think we've almost gone a little bit too far that way," the United midfielder said. "But we're winning games and getting clean sheets and it brings confidence back into the team."
It feels almost churlish to criticise a United side that have made their second-best start to a Premier League season in the last 18 years – the only other occasion since 1993 when they had more points on the board after 12 games was in 2006-07 – yet this was another of those matches when it felt like their opponents were being made to suffer a slow, painful death, rather than being put to the sword in the ruthless fashion that we have become accustomed to seeing over the years.
As well as Swansea City kept the ball in the second half, United seemed to be playing within themselves, and it is open to debate just how much of that is down to the renewed emphasis Ferguson has placed on defending. There certainly seems a reluctance to commit too many players forward, while the deployment of Wayne Rooney in a deeper role, where he talked afterwards about "doing a job for the team", has taken the edge off United as an attacking force and contributed to the striker's barren run. After scoring nine in his first five league matches, Rooney has gone six top-flight games without scoring.
There will be no alarm bells ringing at Old Trafford as long as United keep winning – this is not the first time that they have approached the onset of winter looking workmanlike rather than spectacular – but there is also an acceptance among the players that there needs to be an improvement. "Obviously we want to score more goals and to win the games with better results and to entertain people; we are Man United – we are not looking to play for 1-0 and defend," Nemanja Vidic said. "But I think it's a big thing as well when you don't play well, to win the games."
The reality is that with City going like a train, United can hardly afford not to pick up three points these days. "We said before the start of the season that Man City are going to be a threat and they have come out of the blocks flying," Fletcher added. "At this stage last season, we were behind Chelsea [by four points] so we know what it takes. All you can do is win your games and the season starts taking shape after the New Year. That's when you want to be within touching distance and go for that final push. The manager always says it's about being in a good position come that vital stage when there's big pressure."
It was easy to feel some sympathy for Swansea here. Brendan Rodgers, the manager, has admirable principles but the danger of playing out from the back was highlighted when Angel Rangel gifted Ryan Giggs the chance to cross for Javier Hernández to do what he does best. Scott Sinclair should have equalised not long afterwards but the winger made a pig's ear of connecting with Wayne Routledge's cross, and Swansea, despite all their possession and neat passing in the centre of the pitch, struggled to penetrate United thereafter.
Mark Gower, the Swansea midfielder, felt it was a missed opportunity. "United have been a force in this league for 20 years and there might have been a time in the past when they would not have allowed us to have the ball so much," said Gower, who was in the Southend side that knocked what he feels was a stronger United team out of the League Cup in 2006. "The pace in their side isn't what it used to be. When you gave the ball away to them back then they had Giggs in his prime and [Cristiano] Ronaldo on the wing. They have lost that bit of pace."