It’s a phrase that has been around for a bit more than a decade, “parking the bus.” It’s not a phrase with a positive connotation as it is used to describe teams employing a highly defensive minded tactic. These tactics usually involve at least two defensive banks sitting deep in their own half, inviting pressure and letting the opposition keep the ball and passing it around, waiting for them to make a mistake.
When the opposition has made a mistake and lost possession, the team parking the bus only commits a few players to the counter-attack. These advanced outlets further up the pitch will then break quickly towards goal. The tactic is based on the beliefs that when you do not concede a goal, you cannot lose the game, and you can limit the chances your opposition creates by restricting the amount of space in your own final third.
Since this brand of football is generally not as aesthetically pleasing it is often branded as a negative approach to football, anti-football even. That is rather harsh since it is a well-drilled approach, which requires the right personnel, hours and hours of practice, and a good amount of insight into the setup of both your own team, the opposition’s team and various other circumstances surrounding the match.
In this article, we are going to look at what makes up a good tactic to park the bus, how to set one up of your own, various factors to take into consideration when opting to play such a tactic and ultimately you get the chance to download my own strikerless take of parking the bus.
Parking the bus; what is the big idea?
Like we mentioned in the introduction, parking the bus is an ultra-defensive strategy, involving defending with nearly your entire team. You allow the other team possession, in exchange for occupying almost all available space in your defensive third, keeping the other team from creating any real chances at goal. Then you counter as fast as you possibly can. Generally, you counter using a fast winger or a target forward, without committing too many men forward.
Such a defensive strategy forces opposing teams to take outside shots or simply lob crosses into the box, chances that don’t carry a good conversion rate, but if one goal in conceded the strategy is ineffective and needs to be altered. This style still does wonders in matches where you are expected to be hopelessly outclassed as its defensive setup restricts the opportunities opponents create. It’s not about winning the game but about trying to prevent your opponent from winning the game. Does that sound a bit negative to you?
Managers like Mourinho and Simeone have shown on occasion that this is a valid tactic to negate the technical superiority of so-called unbeatable teams. The aim of the game is to sit back, allow the opposition the majority of possession, and hit them on the break. Many teams struggle to break the deadlock against defensive teams, since their offensive plan, generally, is one-dimensional. When you force an opposing team to take long shots or be dependant of crosses, you are forcing an opponent to use the two methods of attack that classically offer the worst chance conversion rates.
So what happens when you park the bus?
The basic concept has been explained, but what happens in-game when you decide to park the bus and how do you pull it off? The first aspect to consider is the formation. As we mentioned earlier, the object is to sit deep inside your own half in a formation that allows you to absorb the pressure. When you are looking at a heat map after such a game, it will look a bit like this.
As the team retreats to a point just outside of their own penalty area, this is where they make their stand and attempt to absorb the pressure. Most teams parking the bus use two distinctive banks to do so, placing both the defenders and midfielders close together in a compact block. You can park the bus using any old formation you want, but it has to be a tight and cohesive formation, with not a lot of space between the defence and midfield.
Ideally, you want a formation that resembles this in terms of its compactness. There are two distinctive defensive banks present, both pretty close to each other. In a way, the third bank is also a defensive bank, as these guys are supposed to press hard and try to force the opposing team into hoofing the ball into the massed group of players protecting the penalty area. The will also serve as our primary outlets when we want to break away. What we can also take away from this is the fact that you will basically cede the wide areas.
This has to do with the ineffectiveness of certain types of attacks. Crosses and long shots are generally ineffective if you have a decent goalkeeper and tall defenders. By occupying the key central areas and ceding the flanks, you are basically inviting the opposing team to come up with ineffective offensive plays. Let’s just look at what happens when a wide threat emerges.
Since the team that is parking the bus is trying to suffocate play in the main central areas, you can’t sacrifice players to combat the wide threat, because that would create gaps in the defensive line. This narrow formation dominates the central area, but cedes the flanks entirely. So what happens when the ball is brought out wide by the attacking team?
When the ball is played wide one of the wingbacks will shuffle wide, with one of the central midfielders and one of the defenders providing cover and picking up any runners the wingback may have left unmarked when he shuffled over. You can also see that a cross-pass will generally be a poor idea in this situation, provided your central defenders are strong in the air. Every opposing player in the penalty area is marked, and there is a spare defender who can shuffle over to where he is needed most.
So as you invite pressure onto your own defence, this will inevitably lead to more shots being fired towards your goal. The idea, however, is that these shots will either smother in the sturdy wall of defenders protecting the penalty area or that the shots will be from difficult positions. When we look at an average match and the shots fired at goal, we can see this.
We see a fair amount of shots that went wide of the goal and some went wide by a considerable margin. We can also see that most of the shots that did not go wide were placed in the central area of the goal. Statistically speaking, these are shots a goalkeeper can and will usually keep out of the back of his net unless the forward is within five metres of the goal at the point of shooting.
When we look at the positions of the shots fired, we can see that almost half of the efforts were from outside of the penalty area, which is generally a good thing from a defensive perspective. Around 50% of the shots taken from within the penalty area were half-arsed headers from crosses, were the goalkeeper generally just had to collect the ball. By committing so many players to our defence, we are making it difficult for the forwards to actually get shots in from decent angles. The goal we did concede was a rebound from a poor clearance by one of the defenders. While that is a bad thing, the match in this scenario was Saprissa of Costa versus Paris Saint-Germain of France. Just to illustrate my point, Saprissa won 2-1… Conceding one goal isn’t half bad considering the context.
When we do break away, we generally commit a few more players to the attack than one might expect from a team that is supposed to be parking the bus. Traditionally, such teams commit 2, maybe 3 players to the offence. My setup already has three offensively minded players on the pitch, as well as wing-backs who bomb forward. Still, the transition from defence to offence generally happens quickly and we often benefit from the chaos and disarray an opposing team ends up in when they have to shift back from offence to defence quickly.
We can see an example of such a quick break above. The only downside of such a style of play, where players are constantly moving back and forth over the pitch, is that it requires high levels of energy and concentration. The players have to work hard and cover a lot of ground. They also have to remain focused for ninety minutes. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and when one player neglects his duties or fails to pick up an opponent in a timely fashion, the entire team suffers as a result. To summarise:
I want to try it; where is the download?
Alright, alright… This is the version I use. It’s hardly a plug and play tactic and no, I do not use any OI’s.