AC Milan attempted an ultra-defensive strategy to try to hold on to a 2-0 lead against Barcelona. They failed miserably. So is 'parking the bus' a viable strategy?
Parking the bus isn't a new strategy; it's one that Inter Milan and Chelsea both successfully employed in defeating Barcelona and eventually claiming the Champions League title. So why didn't it work for Milan?
First of all, let us define what is meant by 'park the bus'. It's 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, like Ramires and Didier Drogba, without committing too many men forward.
'Parking the bus' isn't generally a recipe for a winning team, since you create very few chances for yourself, while allowing your opponent to continue trying to score.
Even if all they get is five or six half-chances, that's better than your one or two. It usually forces 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. So, why is this strategy employed against Barcelona?
Barcelona have dominated, and continue to dominate, European football like no other club. They enjoy unprecedented success, brought on by a unique possession style of football, and employed by one of the greatest goal scorers and some of the most creative midfielders football has ever seen.
This possession style restricts the opportunities opponents create; whist Barcelona simply feels for a seam in the opponents defence and quickly slices it open. That style creates the most deadly attack in the world, but also the most susceptible one to 'bus parking.'
Opponents regularly find themselves with the ball less than 30% of the time when playing the Catalans. It is hard to create chances when you only have the ball for 30% of the match. Barcelona maintain possession by passing up half-chances, only taking risks where the payoff is the greatest.
When they don't have possession, they press high up the pitch, forcing the opponent into quick turnovers. They dominate teams that try to play them straight up because the other team can't advance the ball and higher defensive lines leave more gaps open in the back for Barcelona to exploit.
So, they sit back, allow Barcelona a little more possession than they normally have anyway, and hit them on the break, the hardest situation to press and defend.
Barcelona struggle against defensive teams because their attack, generally, is one-dimensional. They short-pass teams to death, and finish chances with finesse shots at short range. This attack is precisely what parking the bus aims to stop.
They force Barcelona to take long shots, something they're not especially good at. They force Barcelona to cross and win aerial battles, something they're even worse at.
Barcelona responds by passing up these opportunities, passing the ball side-to-side until something opens up. Odds are, nothing does. So, they default to Messi and hope he'll create something. Chelsea kept him relatively quiet by playing with two central defensive midfielders, cutting off passing lanes unless he dropped deeper, so he ended up in less dangerous positions. That's a recipe for a blunted Barcelona attack.
Offensively, teams don't suffer simply because they don't lose anything. If they build up patiently, they often end up with no chance at all due to relentless pressure. The thought process is a handful of half-chances is greater than one real quality chance.
What was unique about Milan's bus? Honestly, nothing. What changed was Barcelona's approach. They played David Villa as a classic number nine (striker) for the first time in two years, to my knowledge.
Instead of Messi playing striker and being boxed in by two centre-halves and two defensive midfielders, Villa stepped in and forced them to account for him. He played off the back line, pushing it back and creating more space underneath. Furthermore, they started Pedro out wide, who sticks to the touchline and draws out the fullback more, creating more space.
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