Tactics Explained: Jose Mourinho’s rise at FC Porto

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 25, 2019

Jose Mourinho began his ascent to the top of football management at Benfica and then União de Leiria, but it was at Porto during a two-and-a-half season spell where he really made his name. Working with a squad of older players and astute acquisitions from other, less prestigious teams in Portugal, Mourinho forged a side that won two Portuguese league titles, the UEFA Cup and, finally, achieved the remarkable feat of capturing the Champions League title in 2004. It’s unlikely that another side from outside of Europe’s top five leagues will ever win the Champions League again. That Mourinho did it with a squad whose whole was certainly greater than the sum of its parts is testament to a manager who may have fallen behind the times now but, at his pinnacle, was one of football’s great innovators.

Mourinho, who never played football professionally, famously learned much from Bobby Robson at Sporting Club de Portugal, Porto, and Barcelona, and then Louis van Gaal, again at Barca.

But Mourinho also learned from a variety of academics, as well as those in professional football. Manuel Sérgio, a Lisbon-based professor, convinced Mourinho of the importance of psychology, public speaking, and sports science. More famously, perhaps, Vítor Frade, a sports scientist who went on to work with Mourinho at Porto, encouraged the manager’s engagement with the concept of periodisation. In essence, this means that training integrates the tactical and physical and is based around specific game situations rather than learned moves. Players work on fitness, technique, and tactics simultaneously as they solve a series of issues related to a team’s game state – attack, defence, and the transitions from one to the other.

As Jonathan Wilson put it: “They are essentially persuaded by example of the efficacy of the Mourinho model until they instinctively reach for a Mourinho solution.”

Each session is minutely planned and integrated with the whole training programme, so as to get players ready to be in a peak physical and mental condition for the game – this is where the name ‘periodisation’ comes from, as the training works in cycles with peaks and troughs.

It’s important to note this because, while Mourinho’s tactics at Porto during this successful spell were important, the training context, led by Mourinho and informed by his progressive, cerebral way of looking at the game, was absolutely integral to its success. And, as Portuguese football analyst Tiago Estêvão has noted, Mourinho deserves huge credit for doing this with players who were already seasoned pros: “He managed to breathe life into the careers of so many players that were already somewhat past their peak or at their peak. It’s an extremely tough task to absolutely revolutionise a player’s style and form when they are no longer youngsters.”

Tactically, Mourinho’s Porto was solid and organised in defence, but less structured and more expressive in attack. It can be characterised as counter-attacking, but this is largely because the defensive system was so aggressive and disruptive that, by winning the ball back with pressing from a compact shape, it almost inevitably allowed space for the forward and attack-minded midfielders to break at speed.

The team’s shape was a sort of 4-3-1-2 or midfield diamond, depending on how deep the central midfielder, usually Costinha, sat and screened.

Width, always an issue with the 4-3-1-2 or diamond shape, came from the full-backs. Both were acquired from other, less fashionable Portguguese sides in the summer of 2002 – Nuno Valente came from União de Leiria and Paulo Ferreira from Vitoria Setúbal. Generally, Valente on the left was slightly more offensive, largely because Mourinho wanted to keep his side covered defensively and thus only encouraged one full-back to push really high at a time.

The team’s midfield three, anchored by Costinha, usually with Maniche and Pedros Mendes flanking, played strictly in concert with each other and with the back four. They were horizontally and vertically compact, seeking to create a difficult-to-play-through mid-block that won possession back and transitioned it quickly and directly to the attacking trio. The flanking midfielders were also tasked with carrying the ball forwards in transition, and, when fit, Dmitri Alenichev was a more dynamic midfielder who could be used in a flanking position for this purpose.

Porto would play with a high line to facilitate this mid-block, and would also press astutely, although as Estêvão points out, this lessened during the Champions League campaign as Mourinho sought to make Porto even more compact and hard to play through.

Once the ball was won back, the two main options for transition were the carrying runs of the midfield, or long passes from the elegant centre-back Ricardo Carvalho. The aim was to get the opposition on the back-foot quickly, especially if they had over-committed players to the attack to break down Porto’s superbly marshalled defensive structure.

Once the ball had been played forwards, the attacking trio took over, supported by one of the flanking midfielders and a full-back to provide width and a crossing option if needed. Deco sat behind the two strikers, hugely creative, capable of mesmeric dribbling and slide-rule through passes – Deco was the creative hub of the team. Ahead of him, Helder Postiga and Derlei in 2002/03 and Derlei, Carlos Alberto, or Benni McCarthy in 2003/04, combined direct running off the ball good positional awareness to make the most of Deco’s creativity or the width provided by the full-backs. Deco provided six assists in the victorious 2003/04 Champions League campaign, joint-top in the competition with Monaco’s Jerome Rothen.

While the attacking three were supported by other players making attacking runs, there was very much a sense that this team was split into a defensive unit and an attacking unit; the former hugely organised and systematised, the latter flexible, creative, and granted licence to respond to situations created by the defensive set-up. It’s here that the influence of Mourinho’s periodisation training can be seen again. The aim was always to create space for the front three by sucking in the opposition, winning the ball, and then transitioning directly.

This can, of course, be seen as functional and counter-attacking but Mourinho’s Porto were capable of sublime passages of attacking football and, of course, with players like Deco, McCarthy, Alenichev, and Maniche, there was always scope for that. Perhaps because Mourinho was also one of the first managers to go really deep into opposition analysis and frequently made subtle adjustments to thwart expected opposition game-plans, he’s become seen as very reactive; reactive is then, falsely, used as a synonym for defensive and equated with boring football.

In truth, Mourinho was simply brilliant at Porto in getting the most out of his team, instituting new training methods, and creating tactics that maximised their strengths and mitigated their weaknesses. By winning the Champions League he overachieved to a degree unlikely to be repeated in the competition. Time may have caught up with Jose Mourinho, but history will never forget his Porto side.

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