Soccer’s most magnificent mind
By Rory Smith / New York Times News Services
PORTO, Portugal—There is an office at the end of a quiet corridor on the ground floor of the sports faculty at the University of Porto. It is not the sort of place that attracts much foot traffic, and it is not decorated as if it is intended to do so.
The room’s occupant, Vítor Frade, is retired from the teaching post he held at the university for more than three decades. He keeps the office, though, as a convenient place to receive the steady stream of visitors that come from across the world to pick his brain, seek his advice or simply hear him talk.
During the course of his long career, Frade achieved no little academic success, but he could not be described as famous, not in the sense that soccer usually means it. Fans do not sing his name in stadiums, or ask him for autographs in the street.
He was not a player of any great note. He has never managed a club. Instead, Frade, 73, is that rarest of things: one of soccer’s most noteworthy theorists.
His great contribution to the sport is tactical periodization, an approach to management that is often characterized—much to his evident frustration—as a coaching style.
“It is not a method,” he says, almost as soon as he sits down. “It is a methodology. You have a methodology so that you don’t need methods.” The last word is issued with disdain.
To Frade, his approach is a management philosophy, a personal dogma and a belief system rolled into one. It is a way of thinking more than a way of playing, one conceived and crafted in this office, at this university, but that can now claim devotees around the world.
Its most famous evangelist is José Mourinho, who deployed it to considerable success at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, and who now hopes it can revive Manchester United. But Mourinho is not alone. Most of the great Portuguese coaching diaspora carry some of Frade’s imprint: André Villas-Boas and Vítor Pereira most directly, from the time they spent at FC Porto, but also Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim and Hull City’s Marco Silva at one or more removes.
Then there are the foreign adherents, the managers and coaches whose ideas draw to a greater or lesser extent on Frade’s work. Brendan Rodgers, the coach of Celtic, became convinced of the approach’s value while working under Mourinho early in his career. Eddie Jones, the Australian coach of England’s rugby team, is a convert, too.
In recent months alone, Frade has welcomed, among others, visitors from Australia, Brazil, England and Scandinavia. Every so often, with the help of a friend, he puts together an e-mail blast for anyone who has expressed an interest in his work. It goes out, he said, to 542 people, including Mourinho.
The e-mails contain poems composed by Frade—Pepijn Lijnders, a former Porto coach now working at Liverpool, shares them with the Brazilians Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Leiva—but also “articles I have read, interviews with interesting coaches, book recommendations and summaries.” Frade is as likely to include a paper on robotics or neuroscience as one on soccer itself, the product of a brain fizzing and whirring, its synapses forever fusing links between unrelated thoughts.
His answer to the question “What is tactical periodization?” for example, starts with a discourse on the structure of a cell, takes in cesarean sections, where alligators might live in the Mississippi, chameleons, quantum mechanics, and ends, no small number of hours later, with a discussion of the principles of cybernetics.
“He is a living, breathing genius,” said José Tavares, the head of Porto’s youth academy and a student of periodization drafted now as Frade’s hard-pressed translator.
“He does not think like the rest of us.”
All of it is relevant, though, to the system that Frade created.
“Whenever I read something, I am always thinking how it applies to football,” he said. “That is true whether it is something on biology or epigenetics. It is always football.” Periodization, he said, draws on everything, because it is an attempt to account for everything.
“Football is not a linear process,” Frade said. “It is not a sum of things: If you do this, plus that, you will achieve this.” Instead, “the coach must consider every aspect, of the individual, of the team. Football is not two-dimensional. It is multidimensional.”
It is an imperfect parallel, but the game, as Frade envisages it, is not unlike a Rubik’s Cube: Every thing a manager does, every single turn they make, has a consequence elsewhere. It does not work if they try to fix one side alone; the problem must be considered in its entirety.
That is why Frade’s methodology—as employed by Mourinho and the rest—decrees that there should not be specific physical, tactical or technical training sessions, no separate fitness coaches or artificial skills exercises, such as the rondo, the one-touch passing game that forms the basis of Pep Guardiola’s approach. Because every aspect of the game is interconnected, Frade argues, they must be treated as such.
That is not periodization’s only calling card. Everything is related to possible in-game scenarios: no running to build up general stamina; only running to build up the exact sort of stamina that might be required at given moments. No practicing passing; only practicing what pass is needed and when.
Training is never gentle, with all sessions carried out as fast and as hard as the number of players on the field allows. And it is not scripted. Players are not told what to do; they are given a problem and encouraged to solve it for themselves.
“What matters is the process,” Frade said. “They have to work out the answers.”
The week’s training is governed by what Frade and his disciples call the morfocycle. Throughout the season, each day is devoted to a specific aspect of play: Tuesday, for example, might always be what to do when in possession, Wednesday when out of it, Thursday to the opposition’s strengths, and so on.
The exercises can vary from week to week, from opponent to opponent, but must always be designed to reinforce the coach’s guiding principles: A team’s identity must not be compromised to stifle a given opponent.
“A chameleon changes color,” Frade said, “but never forgets it is a chameleon.”http://www.businessmirror.com.ph/soccers-most-magnificent-mind/