Football is a game of diversity and innovation. Several teams use different sorts of tactics to secure their desired result.
You may have noticed football matches where a team maintains the constant presence of many players in their box and hardly retains ball possession. Instead, such teams prefer to sit back and defend.
Here’s what you need to know about why teams park the bus:
What does park the bus mean in football?
‘Parking the bus’ is a conservative defensive tactic that managers employ to maintain a tightly-knit defensive structure. With this pragmatic system, opposing teams have less space to manoeuvre and thus lesser opportunities to score.
Furthermore, this risk-averse tactic leaves only a few players high up to take advantage of opponent mistakes in counterattack breakaways. However, the majority of players remain in the box and clear the ball whenever they have the chance.
The term itself was coined by the legendary Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho after a match against Tottenham Hotspur during his first stint at Chelsea. Following a frustrating 0-0 result in the 2004 London Derby, Mourinho decried the opponent’s approach by stating that Tottenham brought the bus and left the bus in front of goal.
“As we say in my country, they brought the bus and left the bus in front of the goal,” Mourinho stated during the post-match press conference.
Ironically, Mourinho would become synonymous with this tactic, especially for the remainder of his first tenure at Stamford Bridge where he won two league titles in a row. Parking the Bus came in handy when Mourinho’s Chelsea team conquered England with the greatest defensive feat in Premier League history.
Why do teams park the bus?
Here are some possible reasons why a team may apply the ‘park the bus’ tactic:
#1 To compensate for quality gap
Parking the bus is a common tactic among smaller teams who wish to avoid defeat against bigger teams. Whenever there is a gulf in quality between two opposing teams, many consider it suicidal to leave spaces open for the superior team to exploit.
Celtic famously defeated Barcelona in the 2012/13 UCL group stages. The Blaugrana had the better possession (83.6%) and territorial advantage (73.5%) on the night. However, the Hoops were devastatingly effective to seal a passionate win on their 125th club anniversary.
Managers of low quality teams prefer to park the bus and keep a tightly-knit defence to secure the desired result. There is little risk in using this approach since these teams are unlikely to outplay their opponents in a more open game.
This is a similar tactic you can apply if you are playing against big teams on Football Manager.
#2 After receiving a red card
Once a team loses their player to a red card, it is quite hard to defend with one less player. Thus, teams employ parking the bus to sustain the game in their favour and avoid conceding any more goals. Although some teams may decide to maintain an open approach to complete the game, others prefer the pragmatic approach of keeping a close lid.
During Chelsea’s 2012 UCL semi final encounter with Barcelona, the team lost their captain, John Terry, to a red card by the 37th minute and lagged 2-0 behind. However, the Blues parked a proper bus to seal a 3-2 aggregate win and concluded their fairytale journey in Munich.
#3 Defending a lead
In a tight match that can go either way, any team that gains the advantage may park the bus to secure an advantage over the opponents. This usually happens in dying minutes of a game where the team concentrates main efforts into defence to prevent the lead from slipping.
Atletico Madrid faced city rivals, Real Madrid in the 2014 UCL Final. The Reds scored in the early minutes of the game and maintained a tight defensive plug. However, Los Blancos equalised in the 93rd minute and won the Fabled La Decima in extra time.
You can find out more about how stoppage time is calculated here.
#4 A strong defensive team
Several teams have varying strengths and weaknesses. While most clubs aspire for attacking prowess, other teams are known for their incredible and take full advantage with a ‘parking the bus’ display.
Due to their strength in defence, such teams prefer to sit deep and absorb pressure. However, they will implement fast breaks, set pieces and counter attacks to score goals.
Greece won the 2004 European Championship on home soil in a considerably unfashionable manner. The Greeks were considered the second least favourites ahead of the tournament but weaponised their mighty defence to snatch the trophy.
How do you park the bus?
Contrary to popular belief, organizing a proper ‘park the bus’ tactic is far from simple. Only well-drilled and disciplined teams can effectively pull it off.
Although the manager is responsible for setting the defensive structure, players on the pitch have a bigger responsibility of successfully performing their roles. These roles which vary across several positions are:
Goalkeepers must remain incredibly alert and maintain awareness of the ball in every sequence. He must keep his eye on the ball to anticipate every shot on goal both from close range and afar.
In a tightly packed bus, there will be several movements and indefinite chaos where the shotstopper may not have a clear view of the ball. Therefore, he must organise his teammates and communicate properly in the defence to avoid any slip-ups.
Defenders have to time their movements and pay close attention to the opposition’s attack. There must be a cohesive defensive structure and good communication among the defenders to avoid silly mistakes.
Such mistakes may include handballs in the box, playing the opposition onside, and own goals.
Furthermore, they have to be conservative in chasing the ball to prevent gaping holes in the defence. There will be a lot of contact in the box and defenders must be extra careful not to give away penalties.
Midfielders usually play a more energetic role and look to make any interceptions. When they win the ball back, they should look for passing options to break away and play the ball forward to attack the opposition’s goal.
Strikers must be readily prepared to pounce on any mistakes and press the opposition upfield. Pacy attackers are the most suitable for any ‘Park the bus’ scheme to capitalise on possession turnovers with rapid counterattacks.
Once their side gets the ball, they usually move fast to get on the end of long balls, create chances and score the necessary goals. A handful of chances will pop up for the attack and strikers must have effective finishing.
Famous teams that parked the bus
Several teams regularly employ the ‘Park the bus’ tactic to secure results. However, many of these results have come in the biggest stages of football. Some of these are:
During Mourinho’s second stint with Chelsea, his team encountered a Liverpool side who were title favourites. The Reds were on course to win their first league title of the Premier League era but the Blues shafted this long dream in a brutal manner at Anfield.
Aside from their impressive defensive structure, Chelsea made sure to punish any mistakes from Liverpool. Steven Gerrad, the Liverpool skipper, had a ridiculous moment when he slipped after receiving the ball and Demba Ba pounced to score. Later on, Fernando Torres created a goal on the platter for Willian to plunge Liverpool’s title hopes.
Jose Mourinho implemented another defensive masterclass to secure a result in 2010. This time, he led the Nerazzurri to the only treble in Italian football history. However, the road was far from rosy.
Prior to the Champions League Final, Mourinho was asked if his team packed the bus. His reply:
“We didn’t park the bus, we parked the aeroplane and we did it for two reasons. One, because we only had 10 men and two, because we beat them 3-1 at San Siro, not by parking the bus, or the boat or the airplane but by smashing them.”
The UCL Semifinal tie against Barcelona saw Inter take a 3-1 lead in the first leg. However, Inter were at a disadvantage in the second leg after losing Thiago Motta to a red card within 28 minutes of the game. Mourinho’s men adapted by parking the bus to Barcelona’s frustration.
Barcelona hit Inter hard but the Italians prevailed on that fateful night.
Unai Emery’s men led a historic charge to clinch their first-ever trophy by lifting the UEFA Europa League in 2021. The Yellow Submarine fought their way to a final against Manchester United in Gdansk.
During the match, Villareal parked the submarine and yielded no spaces to the Red Devils. The yellows only managed a 39% possession and one shot on target which they scored and won the game after penalties.
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