There is no spoon. There is no bus either. By this I mean that we did not park the bus against Barcelona.
Note the number of times Messi tried that. Zero.
So this merits a long-winded tactics/history lesson.
I tend to think of football as a game of attrition and flair. A defensive team wins by outlasting the other team in a war of attrition, draining resources and frustrating opponents, while an attacking team feeds on the exuberance of attack, prizing attacking flair and flashy play. Sure, most teams fall somewhere in the middle, particularly depending on the scoreline and personnel but the basic philosophy remains fairly constant. 1-0 is just as valid a path to victory as 5-4. Neither is necessarily easier (to do mostly one or the other requires immense concentration and discipline) so teams that fall closer to the extremes are rare and iconic and should be celebrated. Unfortunately, modern fans have an instinctive hatred and lack of comprehension over what defensive football aims to do. To not attack all the time or to not demand maximum possession is considered a failure of imagination. What it really is is a failure of comprehension.
With that in mind, I think it useful to go over what two of the more iconic and reviled defensive formations of the modern day are all about and what they mean in practice. Catenaccio and the infamous Parking the Bus. I don’t want to go over how they were applied in the past so much as highlight how they function in the modern game.
TL;DR Milan did not play either of those two formations against Barcelona. To say they did is to misunderstand defensive football in general and is nothing more than an unthinking slur.
Iconic and Italian. While it was the brainchild of an Austrian and dates back to the 30s, Catenaccio is closely associated with Italy and Italian football through the dominance of La Grande Inter in the 60s and onwards into the 80s. The basic idea is a withdrawn team with a 3 man defense with a sweeper right in front of the goalkeeper set up in a reactive formation. The sweeper would be permanently camped in the penalty area to sweep up any attacks that make it through the defense. Each defender would man-mark an opposition striker with the spare defender doubling up to break up threatening attacks. Spare full-backs might join the counter-attack and the sweeper, a ball-playing defender in the mold of Franco Baresi or Matthias Sammer would play the ball forward.
Catenaccio fell out of favor for two obvious reasons:
- The Sweeper would naturally play opposing strikers onside by being so deep.
- Man marking moved to zonal marking
The only modern team that I have seen that utilized Catenaccio successfully was Greece in 2004. You know, the anti-football ohmygodtheydontdeservetobeinthecompetition Greece under Rehhagel.
Very strict man-marking with four narrow defensive minded midfielders. Modern catenaccio is a very reactive way of playing. The sweeper doesnt sit right in front of the goalkeeper in theory. It doesn’t seek to funnel opposing teams to the flanks necessarily. It simply seeks to intensify coverage in the final third. Match the opposition man-to-man but leave a spare in the back is what you need to know.
When France played two strikers, Greece man-marked them both and had their sweeper Dellas, possibly their best player in that tournament, clean up. Dellas, being super positionally aware, performed the same role whether they played a three man or four man defense and in extreme cases, an eight or nine man defense. Dropping back so deep invites the opposition to attack, allowing room for Seitaridis and Fyssas to counter when given the opportunity. If my memory serves, the Greeks did commit in numbers to their counterattacks, which is another feature of Catenaccio which makes it a lot more than a super-defensive strategy. It is a mark of the systems effectiveness that Greece suffered a comparable number of fouls in Euro 2004 to the flair attacking Portugal and conceded an approximately equal number of free kicks. They also committed fewer fouls than all teams except France, Germany and Italy. Catenaccio is not a reckless commit-all-the-cynical-fouls system either.
As those three stats should tell you, attrition. That is the name of the game. Greece did receive more yellows but its the yellow cards/tackles made ratio that is the true measure of their defensive solidity.
Parking the Bus
This is the modern anti-football, the antithesis of the beautiful game, the Mourinho-ization of Joga Bonito, whatever else you want to call it. The two most famous games using this style would probably be Inter-Bayern/Barca and Chelsea-Barca, both in the Champions League with the spotlights shining.
The basic idea is super-strict zonal marking, to play narrow and have six or seven defensive minded or defensive players. Two DMs in front of a flat back four or three DMs in front of a flat back four with the aim of creating a wall of blue (and black) in front of the penalty area. There is very little actual pressing or doubling up. The threat of a multiple-team looms, of course, but that’s simply a function of the wall and not what happens in practice. A bus team is quite happy to let their opponents play as many short passes in front of them as they please. Defending in the middle third is decidedly casual unlike in the final third. Attacks are expected to come into the final third at which point the stand is made. As a consequence, opposing teams are funneled towards the flanks. Packing the penalty area leaves no way to pass through and the best bet is to win an aerial duel with a tall striker who can also hold up the ball. Teams that park the bus are inviting shots from range. Unlike with catenaccio, this style is much more cynical and invites more yellows/tackle.
Possession is retained by hoofing the ball forward and hoping the forward gets it. Petr Cech probably passed more to Drogba than any of his teammates. The counterattack isn’t really committed either. The DMs stay where they are and once Inter were a man down after Busquets swan dive, not even the wing backs really joined in the attack.
Parking the bus is actually defensively quite risky. Teams take shots from distance, the organization can fail quite easily. If Barca had converted their chances against Chelsea, they might well have won 6-0. This would not have happened at all with catenaccio. (See: Greece at the Euros). Messi broke through multiple times. Teams like Barcelona thrive on spaces between defense and midfield. While yes, there is little space, Messi received the ball mostly in sight of goal. Messi never once dropped deep to recover the ball. The attacks were not started from deep but from in front of the halfway line.
How does that differ from what we did?
We did not park the bus because:
- The majority of tackles were made in midfield (on our side of it, sure) and not in defense in sight of goal, which is a defining feature of the bus. In fact, Messi only set foot in the box with the ball once.
- There was man-marking. Xavi in particular. The bus does not man mark. It cannot spare players.
- Midfield pressing was not casual. When a 4-4-3 (Barca) is set against a 4-5-1 (Milan), the spare man in midfield could be thought of as a sweeper if you really, really want to draw a Catenaccio-ish parallel.
- Abbiati hoofed it forward while praying frantically approximately 0 times. The positions from which Montolivo directed long balls were much further forward.
- DMs joined in the attack. If we were parking the bus, Muntari has no business being all the way up front or scoring. Muntari and Boateng were directing traffic basically, a much more active role than allowed by a bus. They drove Barca players into triple teams high up in midfield.
- The idea wasn’t to make Barca play through the flanks. They were not supposed to get there at all. This is made clear by the number of times we saw Alexis Sanchez (approximately zero) or the number of times we saw Jordi Alba threaten after the first ten minutes. Barca, happily, were content trying to play the middle.
- Force Barca to play through the center. This is not a characteristic of the bus. SES tracked back to cover overlaps, allowing Constant to basically man mark Pedro. Boateng did the same on the other side, allowing Abate to double team Iniesta much further up than Abate would have if we were playing the bus. Messi collected the ball deep on the right then cut inside time and again.
- I have no idea what Fabregas was supposed to do so I literally have no thoughts about him. Theoretically, he might have been expected to dart between the covering banks but he didnt really do that and the passing lanes forward were clogged leaving only the center open.
- Pazzini did not ever attempt to pull a Torres and run at them. Instead he dragged the defense this way and that and at points was Bojan-like in getting himself trapped. The long ball route to Pazzini was more hold-up than a true single striker bus strategy.
This was a game of which Sacchi would be proud but it was not a bus.
Image credits: http://viajealcorazondelfutbol.blogspot.ca