Winning all that matters to Jose Mourinho at Man United, nothing else
"The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy." -- Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
No single quote better encapsulates Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho's management style. He is, first and foremost, a strategist. He can excel at the other side of football management too -- he can harness emotions and loyalty in others -- but strategy is his real strength.
Mourinho, perhaps more than any other manager in the league, is able to strip away the nonsense that surrounds modern football and reduce it to a battlefield scenario.
And yet Mourinho seems genuinely stung by some of the criticism he has received in recent weeks. The defining image of United's 1-0 victory over Tottenham last weekend should have been Anthony Martial wheeling away in celebration. Instead it was a rain-soaked Mourinho with a finger raised to his lips, shushing his critics.
As a result, the UK papers weren't filled with tributes to an important victory over one of the best teams in the league, they were filled with speculation that he had bitten off more than he could chew by criticising the United supporters. Has Mourinho himself lost sight of the simple importance of winning?
Winning is what he does. It's what he's always done. It's the reason that United hired him. They tried preserving Sir Alex Ferguson's commitment to youth by hiring David Moyes, who blooded so many players at Everton. The job proved too big for him. They tried finding someone big enough for the job and brought in Dutch legend Louis van Gaal, but that didn't work either. And so they went for the man who had won a title on each of his last five assignments with four different clubs in four different countries.
Of course, he won them in a certain way; the only surprising aspect of the backlash against Mourinho's way is that anyone is surprised. It's not always easy on the eye, but what were the people expecting? Even with lavish resources, did they really think Mourinho would usher in a new dawn of total football? Did they expect to see a five-man front line of diminutive playmakers happier to lose 4-3 than win 1-0? That is not what Mourinho does. That's why he's won so many league titles. He does everything he can to minimise the chances of losing, while maintaining any route, however slim, to victory.
Mourinho was pilloried for his negative tactics in the 0-0 draw against Liverpool, but it was an understandable, justifiable plan. Away from home against a team that can be devastating going forwards, he ordered his men to stay back. They stifled the game, refusing to leave gaps for Liverpool to exploit, because Mourinho knew that the Liverpool supporters would grow impatient. They would call for Jurgen Klopp to push harder, to remove a midfielder and go for broke with another forward. Fortunately for them, Klopp was too smart to fall for it. And so the plan failed and the game was drawn. But it was a good plan all the same.
It was a similar story against Tottenham at Old Trafford last weekend. United, while not as defensive as they had been at Anfield, held themselves back, focusing first on stopping Mauricio Pochettino's men from creating too much. Marcus Rashford, one of the few United players to impress, was withdrawn and replaced by Antony Martial, to the derision of some United fans and many neutral observers. But Martial's legs were fresh and when Spurs made a mistake, he pounced to score the winner. The plan succeeded and the game was won. This too was a good plan.
Mourinho will have a plan for Chelsea too. It is unlikely to invoke the spirit of Kevin Keegan and will almost certainly be a variation on the frustrate-then-pounce theme (though it's worth remembering that his United went for Chelsea's throats back in April, pushing up and winning 2-0).
Much has been made of Mourinho's record away at title contenders, and it's hardly surprising. His teams have consistently struggled to score on the road and, since April 2015, have scored just one goal in nine games without a single win.
By the end of last season, Mourinho had effectively written off finishing in the top four before the 0-0 draw away at Manchester City and a 2-0 defeat by Arsenal to focus on the Europa League, the semifinals of which sandwiched the Arsenal clash. A creditable goalless draw at the Etihad preceded the first of those semifinals by just a week. He was looking to Europe for the crucial Champions League spot, not the league. It was a gamble, a huge gamble, and had it failed to pay out he would have been rightly eviscerated. But it did pay out.
His gamble to shut up shop and taking any points on offer on the road, even at this early stage, may yet pay out this season too. There seems little doubt that Manchester City are the better team and they are certainly the more entertaining team. Is there a neutral out there anywhere who would rather have a season ticket at Old Trafford than the Etihad? Almost certainly not. But these are not issues that determine the destination of the trophy.
United are grim, but effective. They are calculating, not swashbuckling. Mourinho can be snide and petty, destructive and mean. But these are not issues that that determine the destination of the trophy either.
Mourinho is in Manchester to win. Not to win with style, just to win. That's all the mattered to Sun Tzu. That's all that matters to him.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.