Tactical Periodization: Mourinho’s best-kept secret?

Juan Luis Delgado-Bordonau1 and Alberto Mendez-Villanueva2

1 Football Coach with ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence, Doha, QATAR

2 Sport Scientist and Football Fitness Coach with ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence, Doha, QATAR

Tactical Periodization: a new soccer training approach

“We can differentiate among traditional-analytical training where the different factors are trained in isolation, the integrated training which uses the ball but where the fundamental concerns are not very different from the traditional one; and there is my way of training, which is called Tactical Periodization. It has nothing to do with the previous two even many people could think so” (Mourinho, J. in Gaiteiro, 2006).

In recent years, along with the ever-changing soccer demands, we have seen a trend towards a change in training concepts and methodologies to break with the past. Perhaps, the biggest rupture with the traditional training methods in soccer has taken place in Portugal and Spain. One of the most contemporary training approaches in soccer is the so-called “Tactical Periodization”. The Tactical Periodization method was developed by Vitór Frade, lecturer at the Sports University of Porto (Portugal), and it is being applied by Jose Mourinho and Andre Vilas Boas among other successful coaches. Explained in a simplistic manner, the main methodological and pedagogical principle behind the Tactical Periodization is that the soccer game has to be “trained/learned” respecting its logical structure. For the Tactical Periodization, the “logical structure” of the game revolves around the four moments of the game (see Figure 1). Accordingly, at least one of these four moments of the game is always present in every single training exercise following the called principle of Specificity.


Every game action, regardless of the four moments of the game at which it might happen, involves a decision (tactical dimension), an action or motor skill (technical dimension) that required a particular movement (physiological dimension) and is directed by volitional and emotional states (psychological dimension) (Oliveira, 2004). A good performer (i.e., a good soccer player) is first and foremost, an individual able to select the most appropriate action to respond to the different game scenarios, and these actions are always determined by a tactical context (Garganta & Pinto, 1998). Accordingly, the tactical dimension should be the dominant training component. The tactical dimension leads the orders to achieve the targeted goals. For example, the concept of “speed” would change to relative speed (sometimes you need to be the second to be tactically “effective” in a given soccer game situation). However, the tactical dimension does not exist by itself, it makes sense only when occurs through the interaction of the other three dimensions (Oliveira, 2004). This implies that the tactical, technical, physiological and psychological elements are never trained independently. Everything is included, with the main concern being that every exercise is organized around (at least) one of the four moments of the game and the tactical principles of play (see below).

The tactical principles of play refer to a set of match-play patterns that the coach wants his/her team to adopt at any of the four moments of the game. In simple words, how the coach wants his/her team to play soccer; a conception of the game. Given the high unpredictability that exists during a soccer match, the coach has to intend to create predictability through the process of preparation, planning and training. Accordingly, every training session is designed to be as significant as possible to the coach’s game model. The systematic repetition (i.e., training) of the tactical principles of play should allow the players to transform the coach-wanted match-play patterns into “habits”, which can be defined in lay terms as “shortcuts created by the brain” (McCrone, 2002). The creation of these “habits”, which main objective is to save time, is only possible when the brain has already experienced the same or other similar situations and has “recorded” them. The work of Haggard & Libet (2001) showed that the brain prepares movement responses long before to be conscious that we will execute the movement. Actions and decisions that are taken daily, even seem to be conscious and instant, are in fact the result of subconscious processes occurring in the brain. Thus, through these “habits”, the decision and reaction times can be substantially reduced (McCrone, 2002). This way of training is intended to prepare the player to understand and react faster to every possible game situation.

Game model

“To me, the most important aspect in my teams is to have a defined game model, a set of principles that provides organization. Therefore, since the first day our attention is directed to achieve that” (Mourinho, J. in Gaiteiro, 2006).

Models are creations that are based on an interpretation of the reality by those who create the models (Le Moigne, 1990). Modeling results from the need to make intelligible the complexity of the interactions between the different elements of a system. In the game of football there are specific features such as, for example, players’ decision making. This decision-making cannot be coincidental, but rather they have to be based on certain principles that will make the team acting following an internal logic. While constructing the game model of the team, coaches should consider several factors that operate within a given specific context, where each factor is equally important (see Figure 2).


A key aspect in building the game model relates to the idea of play that the coach wants to see represented in each of the different moments of the game and the interrelationship between them. It is imperative that players know exactly what they have to do in every moment of the game. There are certain tactical behaviors and patterns that the coach wants to be revealed during the game, which include collective (i.e., the whole team), inter-sectional (e.g., defenders and midfielders), sectional (e.g., defenders) and individual actions. Thus, the model consists of principles, sub-principles, and sub-sub-principles of play which are articulated with each other (see below), representing the different moments of the game (Oliveira, 2003). The compatibility of the different principles and moments of the game is particularly important, since sometimes there are behaviors, which could be incompatible. These behaviors and patterns, when articulated, will express a collective dynamic behavior, revealing a certain playing identity, which could be called a functional organization. The structural organization is how the team is placed on the field; it is usually called system of play, for example 1-5-3-2 or 1-4-3-3. Although the structure represents only a fixed spatial shape, it can have an important role in promoting or constraining the desired behaviors. For instance, assuming that to have good levels of ball possession and circulation is necessary that players can constantly create diagonals and “diamonds” among themselves, there are structural organizations that can enhance these behaviors more than others (e.g., structures with a high number of lines, both transversal and longitudinal). Regarding the players, the game model has to highlight and enhance their best features and capabilities. It is essential that the coach get as soon as possible a deep knowledge about the players, with especial reference to their level of game understanding, as they are going to interpret the behaviors that will lead the team to play in a certain way. In this regard, Frade (2003) points out that the game “has to be born first in the players’ minds”. Therefore, it is crucial that the coach can use strategies to let the players recognize the importance of certain behaviors because their convictions are also vital in developing the game model. Consequently, the construction of the game model arises through a process that operates between the coach, players and the team itself. Coach’s constant awareness about what he/she wants to happen both in collective and individual terms and what is actually happening in the game should be the driver of the training process. However, it is important to understand that the definition and creation of a clear game model should not be perceived as something which will require players to act as “robots”, following always a predefined plan. On the contrary, the main purpose of having a clear game model is to reduce players’ uncertainty, which should allow players to have more time to promote their creativity. The structure and expectations of the club or federation are also an important aspect in creating a game model. Coaching a team that can only train twice or three times a week or coaching a team that can do it five days is obviously different. The scope for improvement both collectively and individually is also different. The culture of the countries and clubs has to account for when creating a game model.

Tactical Periodization: methodological principles

To make operational a game model the Tactical Periodization has defined and developed its own and unique methodological (pedagogical) principles (see Figure 3).


Principle of specificity

“For me training means to train in specificity. That is, to create exercises that allow me to exacerbate my principles of play.” (Mourinho, in Amieiro et al, 2006).

This is arguably the most important principle of the Tactical Periodization. Specificity arises when there is a permanent relationship between all the dimensions of the game and the training exercises are specifically representative of our game model (style of play). Therefore, the concept of Specificity directs and leads the “whole” training process. In this regard, Vitor Frade (in Silva, 1998), affirms that regardless of the training exercises’ features (e.g., with more or fewer players, larger or smaller spaces, etc), they should always be articulated in a way that allows our principles of play to be learned and transferred to the competition. But every exercise is just “potentially specific”. The fulfillment of the Principle of Specificity will be only truly achieved if during training players understand the aims and objectives of the exercise, they maintain high levels of concentration and the coach’s intervention is appropriated (Oliveira, 2008). Then, specificity is related to the capacity of make operational the principles of play, and their respective sub-principles. Thus, according to the Tactical Periodization, the Principle of Specificity should also lead the interactive intervention between the exercise, the players and the coach.

Principle of making tactical principles of play operational

“One of the most difficult questions is to make operational our style of play that by creating exercises where we are able to embrace all aspects (dimensions), but never forgetting our first concern: to enhance a given principle of play of our game model” ( Mourinho, J. in Gaiteiro, 2006).

When we observe a team, we find that it tends to be attracted to a dynamic behavior that constitutes its identity, describing a pattern of action. To transform these patterns into practice, every training exercise must be done in close relationship with our style of play (game model) and the concept of specificity (see above). These references should be present in our daily work, in order to provide specific adaptations and tactical knowledge. If the proposed exercise is designed without taking into consideration our style of play, the promoted adaptations can have adverse effects and create “interferences” in the acquisition of the desired specific knowledge. It is crucial that the exercises represent the way we want to play and the randomness and unpredictability that the game has. This implies that each of the proposed exercises have to make emerge something that players do not control. If the game is nonlinear, the training exercises, even being less complex, should be nonlinear, excluding any direct cause-effect relationship. The coach’s intervention plays a key role in conducting the exercise, catalyzing in a positive or negative way its specificity.

It is also important to note that the structural and functional configuration of the exercises is crucial in order to comply with the specificity of the game. It means that there are exercises that because of their structure promote functionality (e.g., the acquisition of non-conscious behaviors). On the contrary, there are exercises which aim exactly the same, with the same number of players, same space but the distribution (i.e., structure) of the players in the field is different from what is required in the game (e.g., central defenders training in a different playing position and role) and can consequently promote inadequate non-conscious behaviors and tactical knowledge.

Principle of disassembly and hierarchical organization of principles of play.

“I wrote a document that never is going to be published. It is my “training dossier”, where I keep all my training guidelines. That is, all my training goals and the way to achieve them through my methodological principles; “to improve these given principles, these exercises”. If I should have to name this document, its title would be: “The evolution of my training concepts””(Mourinho, J. in Lourenço, L. & Ilharco, 2007)

Principles of play are very complex concepts because they involve several variables that are intrinsically and inextricably related, this is why the Tactical Periodization breaks them down to reduce their complexity. Thus, principles of play are subdivided in sub-principles and these are further fragmented into sub-sub principles. The aim is to make them more understandable for the players and therefore, enhance their assimilation. This process of disassembling the principles of play has to be done in very carefully manner; respecting always the style of play (game model) and the wholeness of the game (systemic vision). Each specific principle of our game model is directly related to one of the four moments of the game (see Figure 4 for an example). Not an equal value is given to all the principles of play. Thus, there is a hierarchy organization. The importance of each principle during the training process is directly related to the intended game model. Some principles are more important and valued than others in terms of what is intended. Coach’s ability to articulate all the principles that conform his game model will be determinant to create the team’s DNA; the coach’s conception of the game (Tamarit, 2007).


Principle of horizontal alternation in specificity

“Our daily concerns are directed to make operational our game model. However, the structure of the training session and what to do each day is not only related to tactical objectives, but also with the physical fitness component to be privileged” (Mourinho, in Amieiro et al., 2006).

This principle relates to the necessity of maintaining a regular and fixed weekly pattern respecting the alternation in the training-recovery demands (Amieiro et al., 2006). The Principle of Horizontal Alternation in Specificity highlights the importance and relevance that the Tactical Periodization gives to the physiological dimension, contrary to the common and unfounded misconception that this dimension is forgotten and not trained. In a simplistic manner, the three main training (acquisition) days (see Figure 5) in the week will alternate the physical fitness component to be privileged (we are here assuming that the team is playing one game per week). This is done by either prioritizing strength (first acquisition day), endurance (second acquisition day) and speed (third acquisition day) factors. Thus, not two days within a given week are demanding the same physical fitness component. The main goal is to avoid a large amount of the same physical fitness component stressed the day before, giving the body time to recover and consequently avoiding fatigue. Recovery would take place, at least partly, by switching the dominant physical fitness component throughout the week. This alternation in the physical fitness components to be prioritized is said to occur horizontally along the weekly pattern rather than between exercises within the same training session (vertically). The tactical goals and objectives of each training day can obviously vary in accordance with the specific needs of the team, but the physical fitness component to be privileged each day during a week will remain the same. Thus, it can be said that for the Tactical Periodization the physiological dimension provides the biological framework where the soccer-specific training/recovery continuum lays.


Principle of conditioned practices.

“Training is only worth when it let you make your ideas and principles operational. Thus, the coach has to find exercises to guide his team to do what it is intended to do in the game. (Mourinho, in Amieiro et al., 2006).

It seems intuitive that when the aim is to teach or improve a particular principle or sub-principle of our game model, the best way to do it is to create appropriate exercises. Then, if we are interested in certain behaviors related to a given principle of play, we should make them appear more often than others in the exercise. As such, the requested behavior has to appear much more frequently than during the formal game, enabling players to create mental images about the desired target. Thus, the configuration of the exercise (i.e., playing space, number of players, rules, objectives …) must promote the appearance of the required behavior/s; what is called the “conditioned practices” (see Figure 6). For example, setting up an exercise where a team’s defensive sector is under loaded and is constantly defending, will make behaviors related to its defensive organization to continuously emerge. Then, there will be many opportunities for coaches and players to “shape” these behaviors.


Principle of complex progression

“Since the very beginning, the principles and sub-principles of our game model are privileged through a set of exercises. But the best way to convey our ideas is by lowering the complexity through reduced games”. (Mourinho, J. in Fernandes, 2003).

This principle liaises to the hierarchical organization of the principles and sub-principles of play. It has nothing to do with a general to specific progression, from volume to intensity or whatsoever. For the Tactical Periodization, the concept of progression is built around the acquisition of a certain way of playing. This progression appears at three different levels of complexity: during the season, throughout the week (taking into account the last game and the next one) and finally during each training session, thus becoming a complex progression where each level is related to the others.

According to Frade (2004), at the early stages of the training season we should introduce the general principles of play (related to four moments of the game – defensive organization, offensive organization, transition defense-attack and transition attack –defense). If players know and “can explain” when to apply the principles of play relative to each moment, will be easier for them to assimilate the specific principles that each coach has in his/her game model. In a second phase, we will work on the specific principles of “our” model of game. At this stage we can distinguish two moments, the first being: the defensive organization of the team, which we will begin to work with. According to the Tactical Periodization, it is preferred to focus first on the defensive organization, because by having a good defensive balance the team will gain confidence and consistency, allowing coaches to progress into other game situations (defending properly to attack even better). In addition, to defend is “easier” than to attack. Then, coaches will move to more complex behaviors, as the offensive organization. The transitions are a key aspect in modern football, so coaches should try to train them from the very beginning. They will obviously be linked to the team’s defensive and offensive organization.

To understand the entire logical structure, we should link the Principle of Complex Progression to the Principle of Horizontal Specificity Alternation. We refer to a “building up” and “disassembly” of the principles and sub-principles and their hierarchy inside the weekly plan and over weeks according to the evolution of the players and the team. This methodological principle has two levels of planning which interact with each other, the short-term (game to game) and medium- and long-term (style of play/game model). .

Principle of performance stabilization

“I do not want my team to have peaks in performance. I do not want my team to swing performance. Rather than that, I prefer to keep always high levels of performance. This is because to me there aren’t periods or games more important than others” (Mourinho, in Amieiro et al, 2006).

The concept of performance from a conventional viewpoint is normally based on a set of quantitative- oriented criteria based essentially on the physiological dimension. Planning and periodization in soccer has to assign vital importance to the concept of “performance stabilization”, derived from its long
competitive period. From this perspective, “being fit” is to “play well”. And “play well” is to carry out the on-field duties in accordance to the game model that is intended. Underpinning this concept is that the basis of collective and individual performance is the organization of the team, which is the fundamental objective to be maintained. Thus, what really matters is that a team regularly demonstrates a quality of play (despite minor fluctuations) to guarantee regularity in the results.

The stabilization of the level of optimum performance is achieved through the implementation and maintenance of the standard weekly plan (see Figure 7). Thus, over the season, a weekly dynamic regarding training contents, recovery schemes and the number and length of training units remain almost invariable. As it can infer, soccer performance and training cannot be separated from the competition and the game. It must be translated in terms of play, a quality instead of quantity approach, working always on offensive and defensive actions and the dynamics, which allow the connection of these two moments. By working such way, the methodological Principle of Stabilization is respected.


Principle of tactical fatigue & tactical concentration

“Concentration needs to be trained. It can be done by training according to a specific philosophy. I cannot dissociate training intensity with the concept of concentration. When I say that football is made by actions of high intensity, I also refer to the need of permanent concentration; it is implicit to the game”. (Mourinho, in Amieiro et al, 2006).

Soccer players’ peak performance requires a constant tactical thinking, both in game and in training. It is necessary that players are always concentrated. The development of a tactical attitude presupposes the development of an attitude to think and decide quickly. The mastery of specific techniques and the ability to tactical decision-making depends on their suitability to the situation of the game. That means high levels of concentration from the first to the last minute of the game is an essential requirement. Therefore, the intensity is not an intangible concept, it is directly related to the principles and sub-principles of play, which trained through well-designed exercises, will lead player’s future actions and thoughts. The more variables to be analyzed for the players during the execution of training exercises, the more demanding and intense will be the situation (Frade, 2003).

The intensity is always maximum, but relative, as it relates to the actions performed on a given training session. It will be different from day to day, as the complexity of training sessions also varies from day to day, dragging always with it the other dimensions of the game (see Figure 8). We can exemplify the concept of relative maximum intensity as follows: as a team played on Sunday, the player on Monday/Tuesday is not still fully recovered both physically and mentally/emotionally, as a result of the game. To be able to overcome all the challenges that Tuesday training session can require, the player should be working at his/her maximum intensity of concentration. That maximum intensity, however, will not be enough to overcome the increased complexity (and intensity) that the training tasks will demand on Wednesday and Thursday (as player’s recovery level from the game is higher too). Therefore, from the Tactical Periodization, the intensity is always maximal in terms of concentration, but relative to players’ recovery and readiness to train. The higher levels of concentration during the training exercise the less chance to make mistakes. A high concentration provides a higher degree of learning. Consequently, coaches should always seek the maximum concentration in training.


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Outstanding. He breaks everything down into key critical moments and actions. He is turning his soccer philosophy into a step by step science. I think he gets a little too complex, when really he should just stay very simple. But in this way for people who do not know or understand soccer. They are able to follow along but then they get a little lost. And say too themselves , Wow this guy is really good. Look he is so articulate and breaks things down so well and you think he is capturing the key essence of soccer when actually he is not. He is trying to bring dancing down into a series of calculated movements and progressions. But the real dancer just comes along and dances simply and naturally.

    But it is O.K. for him because he finds confidence in his philosophy. But I think he is a little too full of himself. He breaks a simple way of coaching and training down into a scientific manual. First of all because he is extremely insecure and he has to know he is right. Nobody is going to follow this nonsense, even though his ideas of breaking moments of the game down into 4 specific moments there is so much more to the playing of a game. This is just the tip of the ice berg of soccer knowledge and soccer understanding.

    Actually it is a manual for a person with a low level of soccer understanding and since they do not have this understanding they must write every important element down that they think is important but they are not capturing the qualities that make a great coach a great coach. Also it is a mind that does not know how to develop players into becoming better soccer players technically. There is no room for improvement of their dribbling skill or technique because he does not have this knowledge. So he has to buy players since he cannot develop them. Also there is so much more of the game he does not address. He is only seeking out advantage in the element of Transition from offense to defense and defense to offense.

    What if a team is on the offensive and is working on keeping possession to not allow the other team to settle into their game or keeping possession at the end of a game to close a game out. You can think it is a big secret if you want but it is nothing more than taking simple ideas and concepts and making them sophisticated and being just complicated enough to fool the mind of a President of a club who is about to hire him and he is trying to over impress him just to get the job. Look at how beautiful and natural Neymar Jr. is playing in his first game for PSG. Everything is open and creative with a passing and creative understanding of the highest level. Mourinho’s philosophy wouldn’t even know how to begin to play with a player like this or other players like this, He takes this type of player and tries to turn him into a robot. He has KaKa the World Player of the Year and he cannot even fit him into his team. Or he is coaching Cristiano Ronaldo for 3 years and he cannot develop him enough to teach him a move to his left so he can shoot with his left. Just think how many more goals he would have scored it he would have taught him and drilled him in hooking the ball with his right foot in one movement and then hitting a full speed bomb with his left foot. So even though his philosophy is detailed and breaks things down into smaller parts it is still missing alot of the beauty of the game of soccer in my opinion.

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