Throughout the 21st century, Portuguese coaches have had a significant impact on football in the UK. From the arrival of the self-proclaimed "special one" Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in 2004, to modern day coaches like Fulham's Marco Silva who have punched above their weight on a relatively modest budget, a wide range of different ideas and tactical styles have been brought into the Premier League from Portugal. However, there's one complicated philosophy that has arguably had a greater impact than any other: Tactical Periodization.
For many, this sounds more like some difficult mathematical theory than a coaching strategy, and it's true that it takes plenty of influence from ideas outside the world of football. However, tactical periodization offers a fascinating insight into the beautiful game, and over the years this theory has had a profound effect on how many coaches approach their team training sessions. In this article, we'll be explaining exactly what this term means, the benefits associated with soccer periodization, and how it has taken hold within football.
Tactical periodization is a popular football training methodology amongst top-level coaches, but it's possible you've never heard of it before. This is an intricate training behind-the-scenes training strategy that can have a big impact on matchdays. Famous advocates include Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas, Nuno Espirito Santo, and Brendan Rodgers — but what exactly does it involve?
Periodization is a broader sporting concept used by all sorts of professional athletes. Essentially, it's all about designing athletic training in cycles, based around making sure that athletes are kept in great physical condition and not overworked. Periodization is also about building towards certain competitions, and being strategic in how you train players depending on their load and upcoming schedule.
In periodization, there are three main time-specific cycles: micro, meso, and macro. For an Olympic sprinter, say, the micro period would see them work on things like strength and explosive power in the short term, while a meso cycle would revolve around preparing for a series of specific dates and events in the calendar. This would happen against the broader four-year Olympic pattern, which we'd refer to as the macro cycle.
However, periodization looks a little different when applied to football. Essentially, tactical periodization in football proposes that everything that happens on the pitch comes down to tactics, and so a team's training process should be reflective of that. Bringing in ideas from different sciences and inter-disciplines (neuroscience, chaos theory, theory of complexity, systems theory, psychology, fractal geometry and more), this concept seeks to understand football in a more holistic way. Crucially, tactical periodization looks to view the often-separated strands of technical, physical, and psychological training as all being connected under the wider umbrella of tactical strategy, rather than viewing all these aspects of football coaching separately.
This training methodology focuses heavily on getting players to train in a way that mirrors the intensity and pressure of an in-game situation, often in an 11v11 format but also sometimes condensed to smaller areas of the pitch. When the concept was first developed, recreating realistic match situations throughout a training schedule was a key goal, and that remains the case today. But who came up with this footballing philosophy in the first place?
Portuguese sports scientist Vitor Frade is credited with inventing the tactical periodization methodology. Previously a lecturer at the University of Porto, he began working at FC Porto during the managerial tenure of Bobby Robson (1994-96), and it wasn't long before his ideas began taking root and influencing some of the most innovative footballing minds of the last few decades.
Frade's ideas blended systems theory, sports science, and psychology to develop a training session model that has had a huge amount of influence over European football in recent years. Specifically, the advocacy of top coaches like Jose Mourinho has led to Frade's theories transforming the realities of training ground work in England.
In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Portuguese coach Carlos Carvalhal, who has managed numerous clubs across the world, said "Vitor Frade is the brain of it all. You could call him a kind of scientist but he is a very practical scientist. We understand the importance of the physical, the technical and the psychological... but in this periodisation what controls everything is the tactical."
Viewing every aspect of football training within a tactical framework is easier said than done – how does this actually work in practice?
This training model is about building weekly cycles around each matchday, with each game generally followed by a rest day and then a sequence of training days strategically building up toward the next match. However, within this fairly simplistic outline are a variety of more complex ideas.
The first thing to consider when implementing tactical periodization is a team's game model, which is dictated by playing personnel, financial situation and league position, and of course the ideal playing philosophy of the head coach. The game model encompasses a formation, individual player roles, and specific technical and tactical principles that underpin how the team plays.
"We look at our players. We decide the system that we want to play, the idea that we want to create, and from there, from the very first day of pre-season, we draw up exercises to follow our idea," explains Carvalhal when exploring the importance of the game model. "Day by day we progress the intensity to prepare for the first game of the season."
After deciding how the team should line up, the next stage of tactical periodization is about considering what this model outlines as the four moments of the game:
This refers to when the team is in possession, facing an organised opposition defence.
This phase is when possession has been lost, and the team are transitioning into a more defensive structure, but are yet to assemble themselves properly within the desired shape.
This next phase refers to when the intended defensive set-up has been established, and the goal has now changed to regaining possession of the ball.
The final moment is when the ball has been won back, and the opponents are now out of shape and not organised in their ideal defensive structure.
Each of the four phases requires different things from players in different areas of the pitch. As a result, tactical periodization focuses on training players in various different groups: there is individual work done instructing players on how to behave in certain match situations, small group work (for instance, focusing on the shape of a back line), inter-sectorial work, which hones in on the relationship between 2 lines (eg defence and midfield), and whole team work, which is also super important. These different parts of the team are described in tactical periodization as scales.
In a typical tactical periodization training week, each session will be organised according to scales and principles (principles being the intended actions of players during games). Over the course of the week, sessions will gradually build in intensity from the start of the week, with Wednesday generally being the most intense day of training. Then, things will wind down physically a little, and the focus on Saturday's game will sharpen even further. This weekly periodization of tactical principles, essentially a weekly learning plan, is often referred to as the “Morphocycle”.
This training model allows players to respond to whatever happens in a match according to a set of clear principles that are drilled into them over a sustained period of time. Training work is designed to mirror matchday scenarios, getting as close as possible to in-game situations, even when focused on smaller scales within the team. This practical, realistic approach can be hugely beneficial when it comes to preparing players for matchday.
Integrating all aspects of training within a tactical framework can have a huge impact when implemented effectively. Speaking at a coaching conference in 2005, Jose Mourinho, one of the most successful exponents of tactical periodization, said: "Many clubs do fitness work separately sending players for 45 minutes with a fitness coach, but I don't believe in this. I do not believe in practising skills separately. You have to put together all these aspects in a match situation. There are exercises that can improve your physical qualities using the ball."
Mourinho's triumphs with Chelsea busted the myth that early pre-season training should revolve entirely around brutal long-distance running sessions and relentless fitness work. According to former Chelsea captain John Terry, "[Mourinho] told us that you never see a pianist running around a piano, you see a pianist work on the piano." While having the ball at your feet as much as possible isn't the sole definition of this training model, it's a hugely important aspect of it, and one that can have great results on the pitch.
Ultimately, while elite coaches such as Pep Guardiola have underlined how much control it's possible to gain over any given match, football is still an inherently chaotic game. A big part of tactical periodization comes down to accepting and embracing this essential component of football. And when you look at the unbelievable narratives behind Mourinho's various victories — the Champions League wins with Porto and Inter, the incredible success of his 2004-05 season at Chelsea — the benefits of embracing the chaos and preparing players for anything are clear.
But it would be remiss to boil down this complicated phenomenon to just that. It's important to note that tactical periodization is an extremely complex theory, one that has been interpreted in many different ways. Ultimately, its application within football doesn't always accurately reflect exactly what Frade was thinking when he came up with the idea.
"Some people think that just by integrating their pre-season training they are automatically doing tactical periodisation, but they are not," said Carvalhal. "You can't really understand it unless you understand complexity theory. We learnt a lot of things outside of football. When you have this all in your brain, it all starts to become clear to you. But it takes study."
That being said, it's clear that numerous top coaches have done their homework on tactical periodization. The success of managers that have been influenced by this concept — Mourinho, Rodgers, Villas-Boas, Nuno, Silva — shows just how much this strategy has influenced the beautiful game.
Want to learn about another fascinating footballing philosophy developed on the European continent? Check out our article on Total Football.