On September 19, 2004, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea faced Tottenham at Stamford Bridge. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and Mourinho was none too happy with what he saw as Spurs’ refusal to even try to get forward as they packed their own box with defenders. “Tottenham might as well have put the team bus in front of their goal,” he said. Thus was born the term — if not the actual tactic — of parking the bus.
The idea of playing defensive soccer obviously dates back much further than the turn of this century, but given that early iterations of the game often involved as many as five, six or even seven attackers, it was a style of play that definitely had to come into its own. It’s most often associated, formally, with the Italian style from the 1950s and ‘60s of catenaccio, which means “door bolt” or “chain,” and employed a free defender called a libero or “sweeper” in front of goal who was dedicated entirely to clearing the space in front of the net and doubling up on attackers with any of the other three defensive players.
While the sweeper as a position and catenaccio as a system have fallen out of favor in modern soccer, the concept of stacking the defense and keeping the ball in front of your entire team is alive and well. This approach — combined with an attack built on countering with long balls after winning the ball in the team’s own defensive third — is not often viewed as foundational for teams, but more often as a way to hold a lead or play conservatively when on the road or when facing an aggressive attacking team. Although parking the bus carries a certain negative connotation of ugly soccer, when executed well, it can work sort of like judo. The opponent’s drive and momentum are absorbed and turned back against them.
If a team approaches the game this way from the outset, you will typically see three centerbacks in front of the goalkeeper with fullbacks or wingbacks out wide to either side of them. With many teams sending out between three and four attackers this means that every opposing attacking player can be accounted for with some extra cushion for late-arriving midfielders pushing up into the box. When a team shifts into this approach partway through a game, it’s often signaled by the team bringing on another midfielder for an attacker and a rotation that sees a fullback or a defensive mid drop into the backline. Whether a team begins this way or shifts to it, the surest sign of parking the bus for a team is nine field players behind the ball with just a lone forward up top to receive long balls on the counterattack should one materialize.
If a team is simply trying to hold onto a lead or eke a point out on the road, you may never see that counterattack materialize. But for some teams, some version of parking the bus can become an entire ethos. If you have defenders who are not only stout, but able to send forward accurate long balls, coupled with attackers willing to drop deep and with enough speed and endurance to make repeated long runs into the opposing team’s final third, this strategy begins to look more and more like a bona fide system.
Which is not to say it’s not without its pitfalls. By playing in a low defensive block, you’re inviting a greater number of shots by the opposition. What you’re banking on is that those shots will have a lower degree of success due to greater defensive pressure. This can also backfire: the flexibility and cushion afforded by a numerical advantage in your own box can lead to defensive breakdowns if defenders lose focus because their role and assignment is not perfectly clear. This can be exacerbated if this is a strategy the team only shifts into rather than running all the time — the players are likely to have practiced it less.
The team is also willingly playing on the back foot, which is rarely a position that a coach or a team is naturally comfortable with. Beyond that, it also banks on the opposing team playing a certain way and then responding to it, rather than taking the initiative and setting the agenda. All of this goes to the fact that for a team to create sustained success, it’s often not enough to simply do what “works.” A team might generate short-term returns by playing conservatively — this is, after all, why you see teams parking the bus late in tight games with a lead. To some extent, you have to play the game in front of you, and if what the game or the other team or your personnel demands is packing the box and keeping everyone behind the ball, a savvy coach will do it.
But while a lot of a coach’s job is tactical, it’s also about forging an identity for a team. And that identity needs to blend a concept of how the game should be played with what it means to be a team while also responding to and molding that identity around who the players are. Almost without fail, the most successful, best loved — and even most hated — teams are ones that have had a clear definition of who they are. But even those that have played the most beautiful kind of offensive soccer have had the occasion, every now and then, to get a permit to park the bus.