We’ve seen it so many times in recent years – inferior teams go to difficult games (at Barcelona and Arsenal in particular) with the sole intention of ‘parking the bus’ in front of their goal. Ironically, this term was coined by the master of this tactic, Jose Mourinho, when Spurs came to Stamford Bridge and played in this fashion for a 0-0 draw.
We all know what it means now: ten men behind the ball, crowding the penalty area, letting the more attack-minded team have 70-80% of the ball, mostly in pointless sideways passes because there’s so little room to move.
Chelsea have just won the Champions League using this method. For their last three games of the competition they set themselves up to be the worse team. It used to be more common to do this in away games, perhaps when hanging on to a narrow lead from the first leg or an away goal in the second, but Roberto Di Matteo had his team playing like this at home as well, from the very beginning of the two-legged semi-final with Barcelona; and in a one-off game in the final. He never set out to win these games, and indeed he didn’t need to, as he drew two of them, winning the final in a penalty shoot-out.
Inter Milan, managed by the bus-parker Mourinho, successfully employed this strategy two years earlier, again getting the better of Barcelona in the semis and Bayern in the final. Teams have been doing it to Arsenal for years now, starting with Sam Allardyce’s Bolton side of the mid noughties and continuing with Tony Pulis’ Stoke City side in recent seasons.
It seems a risky strategy, letting good teams have so much of the ball – surely if you sit back and let talented players attack you for 90+ minutes you will just get battered? And yet it never works out like this. Sure, sometimes teams lose out to the odd goal, a late away goal by Iniesta in 2009 was all that prevented Chelsea from working the same trick back then. But even if the defending itself is not that successful and a team creates plenty of genuine chances, as Barca and Bayern did against Chelsea this season, their usually composed finishing deserts them. What is it about these games that kills the composure of these talented attackers?
I’ve said before that I believe footballers are best when they play instinctively, without over-thinking things; this is true of some more than others, but in my opinion the best attacking football is quick and full of self-expression. When we talk about teams like Chelsea ‘killing football,’ that is literally what they are doing: they play in a way that encourages their opponents to have a lot of the ball and a lot of time on the ball. There isn’t much pressure on the man in possession until he gets into the penalty area. This means that players have more time to think, and it slows the game down. It also means that when a chance does come along, they’re likely to be nervous that it will be their only chance, and they crack under the pressure and mess up. Messi and Robben even lost their cool from the penalty spot against Chelsea.
In a sense, because the attacking team is being encouraged to have the ball, they fall into that trap, and feel it is important that they continue to hold onto it, even though I always feel when I’m watching Arsenal that they could really benefit from giving the other team the ball a bit more often. Remember – the defending team has been practicing this way all week and know very well what to expect, so why not surprise them? Take a shot on goal even if it’s likely to go over or be saved with ease, and then let the other team come out and play a bit. It’ll force them forwards and out of their well-rehearsed positions, and a counter-attack might become easier.
Teams don’t really do this though. They play into the hands of the defenders. They play sideways pass after sideways pass and get nowhere. The mentality seems to be ‘if it’s hard scoring when we have all the ball, imagine how hard it’ll be if we lose it,’ which seems silly to me. Why not try it? For one thing, taking a speculative shot into a penalty area full of players opens the possibility that the ball will deflect anywhere, into the goal or into the path of a well-placed team-mate.
But that is the problem with teams like Barcelona and Arsenal: they strongly believe in their way of playing, and don’t like leaving things to chance; if they score, they want it to be a well-worked passing move, not a long-range deflected effort. The problem when teams get so good at what they do is that they believe their goals or their wins are somehow worth more, and while it would be lovely for that to be true, it isn’t. History won’t remember how bad Chelsea were this season, it’ll remember their names carved on the trophy.
Arsenal especially need to get over themselves – their method of playing beautiful football hasn’t brought success for eight years (bizarrely, they employed Chelsea-like tactics to win the 2005 FA Cup on penalties). Barcelona were doing very well before this season, but now need to consider a bit more variation in their play. Everyone gets found out in the end, and no club is ‘above’ football.
Guillem Balague suggested on Twitter last night that it’s not bad for football that Chelsea won the way they did, because it will mean teams need to find new and better ways to attack, which can only be good for the game. While nothing seems worth seeing Chelsea lift the trophy, he might have a point, and in my opinion having less of the ball would be a start.