Parking the bus – why does it work?

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.

12 Comments on "Parking the bus – why does it work?"

  1. You say Di Matteo “never set out to win these games”. Yes he did, but had a different way of going about it. Unlike Arsenal’s suicide dashes, it worked.

    • Perhaps I should have been clearer: of course he intended to get to the final and to win it, but not through beating the opposition in 90 minutes. He played for a 0-0 at Stamford Bridge and got the bonus of a goal from their only shot that night. If not, he would’ve played for away goals at the Nou Camp, or maybe even another 0-0 and penalties. Of course he was after the right result, but not specifically by actually outscoring and beating his opponents.

      As I also say in my article, neither way is better, but given the money that’s been pumped into that team it feels a bit ridiculous that they can’t play a better brand of football. Never mind.

  2. I agree 100% with you on this point.  It became abundantly clear to me watching Barca vs Chelsea in the semi-final 2nd leg that Barca should let Chelsea have the ball.  In fact Barca’s 2nd goal came from a breakdown in Chelsea possession and Messi & Inesta, Alexi picked them off.

    Also the attitude to shooting into a crowded penalty areas is a must.  A deflected goal is just as good as a perfectly created goal.  Many times this season as I have watched a succession Arsenal tippy tappy,flippy flappy passes in front of, around, to the side of this BUS, I am saying to myself-just fucking shoot and see what happens.  Then if the opposition break, close them down and win the ball back but let them come out of their shell.

    One thing that MANU do so well is that they get the ball into the danger area a LOT.  Once in the area anything can happen , particularly if you have a substantial attacking presence in there.

  3. Station_street77 | 21/05/2012 at 15:59 |

    ermm..the manager need to use their head to think to crack these tactic, we don’t need to complain. Just need to out think, in the final champions league notice how kroos use to shoot from distance a few time. As the game continue it became less, maybe he became tired. If all the player continuously doing the same thing for 90min in rotation. It might be 1 or maybe 2 of those shot going in…just like the waiting tactic, it might be 0-0 or 1-0 nil in the end.

  4. John_in_Norfolk | 21/05/2012 at 16:28 |


    The most telling phrase in your post is in the second paragraph, “pointless sideways passes as there is so little room”.  The reason that there is “so little room” is not just because the opposition have parked their bus, but that almost the entire Arsenal eleven swarm into the opposing half thus creating the overcrowding themselves.  A little more discipline would not go amiss, if the defensive mid-fielders stayed back there would be more room for the forwards to work, as a bonus perhaps we wouldn’t so often be caught on the break.  Incidentally, giving the ball away, as you appear to advocate in paragraph seven, has led to any number of goals against over the last several seasons,  Old football adage…..If you haven’t got the ball, you can’t score goals!

    • Well if make your midfielders stay back and attack with only 3 or 4 people , it only make the defending team’s job much easier as they easily overcrowd them. While i agree that a attacking team could prevent fast breaks doing that way,remember that  bus breakers only expects to take something out from those game (In league). That why they need players (often FBs) to overload them just to create numerical superiority!

  5. I know we say our brand of football is beautiful, but I actually was a bit mesmerized by the way Chelsea defended against Barca.  The way the entire team seemed to move in sync, as if attached to one another by invisible struts, especially in the second game.  Maybe I’m giving them more credit than they deserve, but to me it seemed like Chelsea really perfected the “art” of parking the bus over the last three games.

    As a fan of sport and sport history, I think its great.  New formations, new tactics come around, forcing other teams to adjust.  Sometimes the “new” tactics are old tactics with small tweaks, sometimes they are revolutionary.  It will be really interesting to see who Chelsea’s manager is next year and how they play.  If De Matteo gets the job, I’ll be fascinated to see how Arsenal, Man City and Man U cope with Chelsea.  My gut tells me that the solution is to fill our attack with extremely quick players (not necessarily fast like Walcott, but rather quick players who can dart and cut around the defense).  It also won’t hurt to have a few midfielders who can unleash blistering shots from outside the box (especially if we have a few quick guys who can collect the rebounds (ie. clean up the garbage).

    I can’t wait for next year.

    • John_in_Norfolk | 21/05/2012 at 17:17 |

      The Italians were at it years ago, they called it catenaccio.

      • Yeah, and in the pre-Wenger era we played the same game ourselves.  But as I said, sometimes the “new” tactics are old tactics with small tweaks.  De Matteo’s football DNA is certainly Italian, so maybe they aren’t doing anything new, but I think there are some subtle differences – or maybe its just that this year Chelsea had the right balance of experience, power and … Drogba.

        (how to beat Barcelona: )

  6. The problem is that to beat this tactic you need to go out 150% attacking and score early. Unfortunately this is a real problem for Arsenal since we can’t defend against anyone 🙂 The invincibles used to do this and be 2-3 nil up after 20 minutes

  7. To the author I advice u get ur facts before writing.Chelsea did not draw both of their last game before the finals,they actually defeated barca1,0 at standford bridge.Again I think u its tactically narrow minded for a coach (arsene wemger and pep)to play only a pattern irrespective of d opponent).It does make u a better Coach or Team!

  8. Great read! Thank you for putting it out there!

    I agree with you 100%! It’s time to change tactics against clubs who deploy this kind of “anti-football” tactics! The airheads don’t understand that there killing football. And what’s even worse, they think it’s genius tactical move there performing, not realizing that it takes courage and heart to play like Arsenal and Barca. To believe in there own stile and staying true to it. At least they go out with class!

    But we (I’m a Barca-fan through and through, but with much, much love for Arsenal!) do need a plan B. And I think the tactics suggested by the author could actually be the remedy that we’re looking for. At least it will through the other team off there game, and that might just be enough!

    I’m with you, give it try!

    Forca Barca! And nothing but love for Arsenal!

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