Parking the bus: An easy way to play football?
On the 28th of April, 2010, under the lights, inside the Nou Camp, the home of champions of beautiful tiki-taka football, Barcelona, were 98,000 football fans, cheering for their team to win a ticket onto the grand finale, that is the UEFA Champions League Final.
The fans of Barcelona were in high spirits, because surely, the contest was nowhere near over, even though they trailed their opponents by two goals from the previous leg.
Barcelona had, on their side, the advantage of an away goal and it was just matter of scoring two more goals at their home. With their attacking prowess, the fans were fully confident that they could overcome the deficit easily and they showed it in their support.
It was a cracking atmosphere, the kind of atmosphere that every sportsman dreams of. The cheers seemed to give energy to the hosts and shivers to the visitors. At least that’s what should have happened.
But what they witnessed for the next ninety minutes shocked each and every football fan. It hurt Barcelona's supporters trust badly. It injected pain to each and every one of their supporter, so much so that they still have painful memories of that night at the Nou Camp.
At the final whistle, the fans of the team that lost, watched on, as the manager of Inter Milan, José Mourinho, sprinted onto the football field, waving his arms up in the air.
That enraged the fans of the hosts, but in the end, they had to accept that this guy had outfoxed his counterpart. That didn’t stop a section of the media and pundits labeling him as the enemy of football.
True, he set up his team to play ultra-defensive football. That was evident the minute, the team sheets came out, as Christian Chivu was slotted in as a last-minute injury replacement for the more attacking minded Goran Pandev. Pep Guardiola, did not need a second hint that the opposition was not going to come out of their shell to attack.
Why even then, did Barcelona continue to play the same way and proved their methods ineffective in the attacking third? The media focused on the so-called ‘negative football’ deployed by Jose Mourinho and skipped on the much more important questions that needed to be asked. Can football be played in only one way?
More than one way to play football
After 5 years of development both inside and outside the football field, the question still remains. Should sportsmen be governed based on his ability to win or his narrow-minded concept of beautifying everything until the finish line only to throw it all away at the last minute?
The mindset that passing the football from one end to the other and putting it into the net and continuing to do the same thing again and again until the final minute, is the only way to win a football match, is what is clearly wrong.
That actually makes a sporting activity dull. If you are playing a team sport such as football, you want to have several paths to reach the finish line. You would love to have a Ferrari to race to the opponent's goal but sometimes, a big large bus parked efficiently in front of your own goal is what you need.
It is all about tactically bettering your opponent and that’s what managers like Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone have been able to do time and again.
'Parking the Bus' is the phrase coined for a team playing ultra-defensive football, lining up most of their outfield players very deep inside their own half. It’s not negative football by any sort of imagination. It’s just another way to approach a game.
If playing defensive is negative football, shouldn't ultra-attacking football also be negative football?
If Chelsea of last season conceded very few goals and were set up to play a defensive game, Liverpool FC were just the opposite. They leaked goals because they surged forward, giving little attention to their defensive duties, resulting in large amounts of goals both scored and conceded.
In this scenario, we have a club which employed a water tight defense linking to a restricted attack and another that concentrated on attacking the final third, leaving behind a non-existent defense.
Both are culprits of not paying attention to different parts of the game. But only one side gets labeled as playing negative football. Again, the mindset of people analysing the sport needs to change.
The positives of having a Plan B
Tactical flexibility is an important aspect of the game. It gives you that extra dimension, that Plan B must be available in your pocket, which might win you the game.
What Arsenal and Barcelona has lacked in recent years, the Manchester sides, the Germans and the Madrid sides have employed quite brilliantly.
Let’s bring the focus back onto the Premier League, the only elite European League where multiple teams are competing for the trophy. It takes astute tactical decisions at different times throughout a long and tiring league season to grab hold of the trophy come the end of May.
Let’s take a look at the premier league winners of the last ten years:
Chelsea achieved glory thrice, Manchester United won the league five times, and Manchester City did it twice. All three of these sides had a perfectly placed strong backbone. They could turn the game in their favor at any instant. They could grind out results. And, if situation demanded, they could play defensive football.
Chelsea were the most defensive of the trio, but Ferguson's tactical brain and City's power packed midfield did not try to pass the ball into the net every weekend. They had the winning mentality that the other teams lacked.
Sir Alex Ferguson knew when to raise their pressing game and when to shut up shop. None of the managers who managed these teams went into a game with a preset tactical plan. They were ready to change it up whenever required. And that made all the difference. That may be why Arsenal are yet to win a Premier League trophy since 2004.
Arsenal raised their defensive game this season, and they are seeing the results. Chelsea started the season playing sensational football, and are ending it by parking the bus neatly because when it mattered, they were ready to change the game plan to reach the finish line.
Where David Moyes messed up, Van Gaal has brought back the charm of playing with different plans. When things weren’t going the right way and the whole team played poorly, he was brave enough to change his own game plan to throw on Fellaini, who, until then, was considered a flop, beside the striker up top.
True, it wasn’t pretty but it brought results. And fans can rejoice, because that so called 'negative' game plan might have just given them back Champions League football next season. If not, it has certainly been an improvement on what Moyes did last season.
Again, this brings us back to our original question. Shouldn’t there be different ways to reach the goal? Isn’t football supposed to be a winner’s game? If yes, shouldn’t managers be given the freedom to set up a game plan that negates the opposition’s threat rather than face the threat without a backup plan and get punished?
It’s the power of media that’s influencing people and making them think there’s only way to play the game. Arsenal and Liverpool of the old generation did not play the pretty football that they are now playing. But back then, it was about winning.
Somewhere down the lane, something changed, as a result, the game is being turned into a one-dimensional party dance off wherein the best dancers aren’t given credit and the most beautifully dressed couple that stumbled on the dance floor takes away all the plaudits.