Rarely has relegation proven to be as beneficial to the manager who failed to avoid it as that of Hull City. By the time that their drop from the Premier League was confirmed on the 14th of May 2017, Marco Silva had become one of the most highly regarded coaches in England. Relegation had looked inevitable when he got the job yet he managed to give the club some hope and pride through the attacking football he managed to impose on the team.
The way that Hull played during the five months in which Silva was in charge gave him the platform that other jobs had failed to do. Even though he was just forty when he arrived in England, Silva had already earned a promotion to the Portuguese top flight with Estoril, won the domestic cup with Sporting Lisbon and the Greek league with Olympiakos.
Perhaps more noteworthy than Silva’s career path, that has since seen him join Everton via Watford, is how common such success appears to be for Portuguese coaches. There are, by some estimates, more than 250 Portuguese coaches working professionally outside of their country. Three of them are doing so in the English Premier League including the most famous and successful of them all, Jose Mourinho.
The increasing allure of Portuguese coaching is best exemplified by Carlos Carvahal. Over a period of fifteen years, Carvahal had managed a large number of clubs in a somewhat nomadic career that peaked with spells at Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas. His failure to make much of an impact at either of those clubs seemed to have put off potential suitors and for three years he was out of a managerial job.
Then, in 2015, Sheffield Wednesday surprisingly appointed him as manager. There he proved to be an immediate hit, leading them to a sixth and fourth place finishes in the Championship. Sadly on both occasions, Wednesday lost out in the Play-Offs but people had seen enough of Carvahal to confirm the stereotype of Portuguese managers; tactically astute and capable of getting the most of the players at their disposal.
It was this reputation that led Swansea to turn to him when they were looking for yet another manager to save them from relegation. Again, initially it looked like an inspired choice as Carvahal’s tactical tinkering allowed them to move off the bottom and in the process raise his profile whilst also further enhancing the status of Portuguese coaches. It proved to be short-lived because the realities of the squad at his disposal eventually could not be overcome by his methods.
Whether Carvahal would ever get another job in the English top flight is debatable but many clubs are clearly more than willing to take a chance on Portuguese coaches. Partly, that is down to others’ success. If the way in which you prepare players is shared by someone of Mourinho’s pedigree, this eventually happens. Yet it isn’t that superficial. In fact, it is a belief that is quite grounded in reality.
One of Mourinho’s early mentors was Vitor Frade. Early in the 1990s, this unheralded university professor had ideated the “Periodização Táctica”, now commonly referred to as ‘Tactical Periodisation’ which is essentially a methodology of how football should be trained, thought of and played. At its core lie tactics through which, the belief goes, all other factors should be funnelled.
This means, for instance, that training has to be planned with the tactical objectives in mind. A classic example is that it is of no use to have a player who is so well trained that he can pass accurately on the pitch, if he makes the wrong passes. Naturally, the theory is much more complicated and nuanced than that but while its parts are not wholly original, the combined ideas as a methodology were pretty much unique when Frade conceived them. It was conceived by Frade and interpreted in various ways by his followers.
Mourinho benefitted from direct mentoring by Frade whose views he incorporated in his own training and which fitted in perfectly with his outlook of the game. This combination has allowed him to succeed wherever he has gone.
More importantly, the theory link provided clarity for the young Portuguese managers who came after Mourinho. Andre Villas Boas and Leonardo Jardim, to name just two, have also had their thoughts shaped by tactical periodisation and their understanding of the methodology gave them an advantage. The idea is no longer limited to Portuguese football but, clearly, with their access to Frade, his alumni local coaches still retain an edge.
The Portuguese league provides them with another advantage. In many ways, it is the ideal forming ground for young coaches. Most clubs do not have the funds to bring managers from overseas so they turn to home grown coaches. Added to that, the trigger happy nature of Portuguese chairmen provides them with plenty of opportunities whilst the success stories at Porto, first of Mourinho and then of Villas Boas, has conditioned clubs to look favourably at the younger generation of coaches. This explains, to an extent, why managers climb through the ranks so quickly.
And yet, even though the doors to Portugal’s biggest clubs are within reach for them, most of those managers know that they have to look beyond the confines of their country if they really want to establish themselves. This makes them preconditioned to be ready to work overseas, ready and willing to both embrace other cultures and also teach players from different cultures how to play their way.
It is all, in many ways, the perfect combination. There is the tactical foundation that allows them to get more out of the players at their disposal. Then there is the experience that they manage to rack up early on which allows them to fine-tune their ideas along with the willingness to emigrate. Topping it all is belief; not only by the Portuguese themselves, but also by football clubs and nations all across the world who have come to consider the Portuguese as masters of the tactical game.