Is Defensive Football Back on the Rise Again?

The 1972 European Championship final, many say, is one of the most historic finals ever played.

Ajax’s total football style demolished Inter Milan’s catenaccio style to put an end to ‘defensive football’.

Plaudits were rained down on the Ajax team, and many felt that attacking football would rule the football world in the future.

The theory did prove true for the next few decades until everything changed when a depleted Chelsea team, led by their interim manager Roberto Di Matteo, faced the kings of possession play and attack, Barcelona.

The Catalans were led by their influential and arguably one of the most successful tacticians of all time, Pep Guardiola.

Since taking the reins at Camp Nou in 2008, Guardiola had devised the much famous tiki-taka style with Barcelona.

The tactic primarily consisted of the players dominating possession and play and creating dozens of opportunities to score. Moreover, their immense and clever pressing resulted in a quick ability to win the ball back and consequently giving the opposition minimal chances to have a go at goal.

Hence, to no surprise, through the tiki-taka style, Pep Guardiola had already yielded immense results for his beloved club, leading them to three La Liga titles, two Champions League titles and numerous other ‘not-so-important’ trophies like the Club World Cup, Copa Del Rey, to name a few.

Barcelona were clearly on the verge of European eternity and re-writing the imperial history books when they came into their much anticipated two-legged semi-final clash against Chelsea.

The latter, on the other hand, were on the verge of encountering one of the worst seasons in their recent history.

On the domestic front, even though The Blues were able to book a place in the final of the highly-coveted and historical FA Cup, their chances of a top-four finish looked overwhelmingly unlikely, and on the European front, John Terry and co. faced a possible catastrophe.

Pep Guardiola- One of the best tacticians of all time?
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However, Di Matteo, a coach who had been ‘sacked’ by his former club West Brom only the previous year,  had other plans, and devised tactics that garnered tons of criticism, but brought Chelsea positive results.

With Chelsea’s attackers not performing at the highest level, the former Azzurri midfielder decided to take an ultra-defensive approach to counter Barcelona’s tiki-taka style.

In modern football lingo, Chelsea ‘parked the bus.’ The Blues did not concentrate on winning possession and attacking, but instead cocentrated on not giving the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi room to produce their magical plays and key passes that have humiliated and slaughtered teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Arsenal in the past.

Di Matteo deployed three disciplined midfielders ahead of four strict defenders, and three quick outfield players to quickly counter attack the Catalans. Subsequently, all Chelsea did over the two legs was minimize Barcelona’s attacking prowess and frustrate the Spanish giants to a such extent that the Blaugranas gradually started to leave holes in their defence, which were duly and efficiently exploited by the likes of Ramires and Didier Drogba.

Consequently, and to the shock of the entire football world, the method worked and Chelsea defeated Barcelona 3-2 over two legs of the Champions League semi-final.

“Parking the bus” had defeated tiki-taka.

Roberto Di Matteo: Mastermind behind’s Chelsea’s historic win over Barcelona.
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Yes, Barcelona did go along with their philosophy of dominating the possession and game and creating wonder chances to score.

The four-time European champions enjoyed  73%  possession over both matches, completed  1,537 passes (782 in the first leg and 755 in the second), to Chelsea’s 329 (194 and 135), had 46 shots on goal, in response to Chelsea’s 12.

Moreover, Xavi Hernandez, one of the best pass-masters and midfield maestros of his generation, managed to complete a total of 295 passes- just 34 less than the entire Chelsea team.

But in the end, as the Chelsea fans love to point out, one stat’s bigger than the rest: Chelsea scored the more number of goals.

The media, fans, critics and even some past and present players slammed Roberto Di Mattep and his players for their ‘anti-football’ tactics.

Many felt that the Catalans were denied a deserving trip to Munich to retain their crown of the best European club in the continent.

Roughly three months have passed since the world watched Chelsea successfully use this defensive style, and it is now being used by many clubs and international teams. The same fans who once bashed Chelsea for ‘destroying’ the beautiful game, now cheer and applaud their respective teams when they ‘park the bus’ against better and arguably more competitive opponents.

In fact, like the tiki-taka and Total Football style, “park the bus” has become a renowned and successful type of play.

England, in their opening group encounter against France at the last month’s Euro 2012, literally replicated the tactics used by Chelsea. Roy Hodgson and his men played out an organized and structures game and salvaged a point, in what was seen as a definite loss for the Three Lions.

Denmark deployed the same tactics against the Germans and almost got away with a historic draw. Croatia similarly faced Spain in an all-important clash for both the teams. La Roja might have won the game but the winner only came after long periods of ball domination and attack.

“Parking the bus” might not have been quite successful until now, but it is making its mark in the football world. It is helping the ‘weaker teams’ avoid humiliating losses to ‘bigger’ and ‘stronger’ teams and at times, even defeat them.

Teams which were seen as walkovers have now started to pull out shock wins and draws over their respective opponents by just “parking the bus”.

Not quite invincible anymore?
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In other words, “parking the bus” is slowly and surely ending the domination of attacking football and to some extent, the bigger teams, who were seen to roll over their opponents with loads of goals and attacking impetus.

Yes, it might be ‘anti-football’, boring and media unfriendly, but people tend to forget that as long as you’re within the rules of the game, nothing is ‘unfair’ and it is up to you how you want to play the game and defeat the opponent.

Record books do not show the number of shots you had on target, nor do they do not show how many corners and free kicks you won in a game. All they show and care about are the number of goals you scored, and the number of games and silverwares you subsequently won.

At the end of the day, all that matters is winning.

You can either put out a great wall of defensive men and counter your opponents like Chelsea, or play an enigmatic beautiful game and thoroughly bash your opponents with a fluent attacking display, like Barcelona.

Until a few months back, the latter’s way of attacking was seen as the only way, but now, the likes of Chelsea and England have shown the world that football is defensive football is also good football and it is possible to beat teams with arguably the best attackers in the world, with a calm and patient approach.

If nothing else, this style is proof that there are ways to beat the total football that Barcelona have used to dominate the football world over the last four years.

Football always works in cycles. The past half decade has seen a resurgence of the Total Football style that the Dutch used to revolutionize the sport, essentially ending the preference for defensive football.

Now, nearly 40 years after its ‘death’, defensive football might just have been born again to rule this beautiful game.

15 comments for “Is Defensive Football Back on the Rise Again?

  1. Mohamed Al-Hendy
    July 11, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Sorry Surya, but I have to say I completely disagree. Chelsea may have succeeded, I’ll give you that much, but England and Croatia are completely different stories.

    England didn’t truly park the bus. Their strength may have been their defense, but if their midfield had been good enough or trained enough to execute an offense, they would’ve. The park the bus approach came from Hodgson’s incompetent battle plan rather than a per-meditated intent to shut up shop against the French and Italians.

    And Croatia most definitely did not simply park the bus vs Spain. They attacked, and put Spain in very dangerous situations throughout the game. Parking the bus wouldn’t have worked, because Croatia’s defenders are nowhere near good enough for that kind of continuous pressure.

    Defensive football isn’t back yet; maybe if we see Chelsea or another park-the-bus-esque team in the final, then we can say that. But for me, that Chelsea team was very much an anomaly, and no one on the international stage or club stage will likely emulate their success with defensive football in the near future.

    My two cents though.

    • Surya Solanki
      July 11, 2012 at 11:20 am

      First off, thanks for the comment Mohamed.

      Second, I feel that due to, you may some lack of attacking prowess, or anything, England did play an immensely defensive game against France. Yes, their midfield was not quite good enough but then subsequently at the end of the day, they did go on and ‘park the bus’.

      Croatia, too, for me played out a defensive game. Spain completely dominated the game the Croats clearly and patiently defended and waited for their chance to counter. The most potent threats only came when the countered La Roja.

      Well, only time will tell if we actually see the return of defensive football. What I truly feel is that we surely will. Chelsea played a defensive game and beat one of the best teams of all time! So, in the future I’m quite sure that we’ll surely see more of defense, particularly from ‘smaller’ teams.

      Nonetheless, thanks for the comment and read!

  2. Daniel
    July 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I am no Chelsea fan but the blame does not lay at their feet for being able to play different styles of soccer, rather at Barca and Pep for having no Plan B.

    Chelsea did not park the bus against most teams. Against Barca however they knew they where out matched and out gunned. To play head to head with Barca is asking for trouble. To have the best chance to be Barac you have to exploit their weaknesses which are their lack of size in the attack and the over aggression of their back line. There is no real aerial threat in the Barca forward line and attacking mids. So you pack the middle of the field and force the balls out wide and when they cross in the Chelsea (and US since we did the exact same game plan in 2009) defenders simply clear the balls out. Sooner or later you catch a Pique or Alves out of position and the counter is on and you have to take your few chances.

    And then their is Pep’s stubbornness. He knew Chelsea was going to play like this heading into the second leg. At some point you need to have the ability to change your style. If a team does not want to attack and get out of their final 1/3 you have to make them. You fain retreat, you rope-a-dope them. You let them have a little possession, let them think they are getting the better of you and they come out of their shell. And then you pounce on them.

    Also, there are very few teams in the world that has the ability to play that organized in the back and midfield to “park the bus” against Barca and live to tell the tale.

    • Surya Solanki
      July 11, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Hey Daniel,

      Thanks for the comment first and foremost.

      I completely agree with you with you’ve said. I guess that Pep should have utilized a different plan to get the better of Chelsea and in all fairness, I guess the main difference came due to Barca’s no striker formation. I’m not against false nine tactic, but against Chelsea, it didn’t work.
      Barca needed a finisher/poacher in front of the goal. Someone like David Villa.

      I guess, the smaller teams will try to copy Chelsea’s tactics in the future. Yes, they will have difficulties being as organized as the Blues, but I guess slowly and gradually ‘parking the bus’ will gain momentum, particularly when a team will face a much better opponent.

      Thanks again for the comment though!

    • Matthew Buening
      July 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      I agree 100% that Pep needed a Plan B and that Barcelona really only have themselves to blame, but keep in mind that this tactic worked against Bayern Munich as well who are not limited to just a passing, possession game which is their normal style.

      Munich have turned themselves into the best possession team in Germany, but they have been known to revert to a counter-attacking style. We saw them pull a wonderful counter-attack against Chelsea several times. The difference between the two teams is that Robben and Gomez choked several times. (They still have only themselves to blame.)

      Parking the bus can be risky, because had Bayern or Barca been able to break down the defense just a little bit better, Chelsea would have been sent home. But it was effective against the counter-attack as well.

      • Surya Solanki
        July 12, 2012 at 4:20 am

        Thanks for the comment Matthew!

        I guess the only reason why Bayern lost were because of Robben to be frank. He wasted a lot of opportunities and could have easily won the game for the club.Chelsea were also almost broken down by Bayern, but at the end of the day, they did come out to be victorious.

        Bayern have IMO become one the best possession keeping teams in the world, but then again they have some big game chokers who ruin all the hard-work.

        Even though it might be risky, smaller teams will surely find ‘parking the bus’ a much better bet, rather than going out on attack and trying to score goals.

    • July 13, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      Hey Dan, please see my comment towards Braden. I think it applies to your point as well.

  3. Braden
    July 11, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    I feel like a number of Barca fans have increasingly taken the mindset that playing any sort of defensive game is “parking the bus”. Yes, Chelsea did that, but a five minute analysis tells you that’s probably the best way to go against Barca. Put it like this, if you’re gameplanning against a team that will:

    A) Beat you in midfield probably 60-40 at a minimum
    B) Play with their WBs WAY up the pitch
    C) Will try to string together passes and rarely if ever shoot outside the box
    D) Don’t play with anyone they send a cross to

    What are you supposed to do? It’s not hard to see that your best chance lies in playing a compact defense that guards the middle of the penalty area, clogging up passing lanes, and telling your speed guys to get out in to the space the WBs have left IMMEDIATELY when the ball is turned over.

    Barca dictates that teams that are unfamiliar with them play them this way. Only teams that are really somewhat comfortable with it themselves have a chance of playing any other way (Arsenal the previous year, RM, etc) If Barca had one target forward or a couple of guys willing to take a shot outside of the box, this all goes away really quickly.

    That’s my biggest frustration of hearing Barca fans whine about teams that play them defensively. It’s so easily countered with two transfers.

    • Mohamed Al-Hendy
      July 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Agreed. Except I’m confused about that last line. Two transfers? What/who is this referring to?

      • Surya Solanki
        July 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm

        Same here. Couldn’t get it.

        But still agree with what you’ve said Branden. Maybe Barca should improve upon playing a more kind of straightforward game rather than just passing passing and passing.

        Thanks for the comment nonetheless Branden.

      • Daniel
        July 12, 2012 at 1:06 pm

        Mohamed, I believe what Braden was referring to was bringing in a bigger forward in a transfer to give Barca some threat to score in the air via a cross. That if Barca had a creditable threat in the air teams could not conced the wide area outside the penalty area as they do now, and that stretching of the back line will open up passing lanes into the box.

    • July 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Great points, Braden and I agree with everything you say. I think Chelsea is good enough to have challenged Barcelona more openly, but they did not have the confidence to do so. But it worked so there is no arguing against it.They used their strengths to attack Barcelona’s weaknesses.

      One thing about your comment, though. If Barcelona fans complain about this strategy as being unfair or ugly, they must not watch La Liga very often. What Chelsea did was nothing new. We see the exact same strategy employed throughout the season.

      The difference is just that Chelsea have spent hundreds of millions of euros putting together a far superior squad together than those Spanish clubs ever could. It is expected that a club like Chelsea can execute better than a Real Zaragoza.

      But at the other end, I feel like some people go too far in criticizing those fans and teams who actually do still subscribe to beautiful football. There is something respectable about the idea that losing with good football for the fans is better than maybe winning with ugly football. Both viewpoints deserve respect and understanding.

      Also, on your final statement, I disagree. I don’t think Barcelona could have countered it with two transfers. They’ve tried and failed before. If they were completely healthy, they would have had those transfers anyway. Their “Plan B” that everyone criticized them for lacking was on the injury table in David Villa and even Pedro (who was not fully fit yet).

      But I still agree that people writing it off as unfair or ugly are frustrating. I think it’s more out of bitterness than actually disagreeing with the strategy for the most part.

  4. Mohamed Al-Hendy
    July 12, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Ah okay. The only problem with that is they already did that with Ibrahimovic, and we saw how that turned out.

    Barca would need to find a good striker who is happy with spending 95% of his time on the bench, being used only in those rare occasions when Barca comes up against a defense resilient enough to withstand the tiki-taka offense and Messi’s incredible dribbling skills.

    So I guess I ought to clarify; I’m not a hater of defensive football, and think it is a fair type of football that should be commended when it wins. That said, I’m not a member of the “Barca back-up plan” team. While Spain can afford the luxury of having a back-up because they are a national team and it is honor just to be a member of your national team, any CF going to Barca sort of already knows he will never play. Barca’s best bet is to recruit David Villa-esque players; players who can get playing time out wide but operate as target men when needed. That way they can be called upon in those emergency situations, but will play otherwise.

  5. Silas
    July 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    In addition to all the comments affirming Chelsea’s deserved win, Chelsea also deserves to be praised for their ability to adapt their style of play to exploit their opponents weaknesses. Against Barca and Bayern, we won the games with tactics and commitment to the game plan. Against Napoli, Benfica, Villareal and Genk, we played attacking football. Some have said that Barca and Bayern lost the champions league instead of admitting that Chelsea won it.

    However, if the stats for the Barca tie and Bayern tie are examined, it is clear that Chelsea were not ‘lucky’ to win but instead, forced their opponents to miss.
    Against Barca, Chelsea blocked 18 shots out of 36 shots over 2 legs. That is 50%.
    Against Bayern, Chelsea blocked 22 shots out of 35 shots. That is 63%. This statistic clearly shows how commited Chelsea’s defense was. In other finals, no one comes close to blocking the same number of shots. in 2010/11 Man Utd blocked 8 shots against Shalke and 7 against Barca.

    Furthermore, Defense is not just about blocking a shot but also on pressuring the other team into a miss. This principle is very evident in Basketball. To play good defense in basketball, you do not have to literally steal the ball or block a shot every possesion. Instead, a good defender will decrease the shot % of the attacker and force them to take poor shots. By doing this, the % of a miss will go up which results in unscored points…Defensive task complete. Is it a coincidence that over two legs, Barcelona missed 25 shots against chelsea while they only missed against Bayern Leverkusen (round of 16) and Milan (Quarter) they missed a combined 29 times? In the final, only 7 shots made it to the goal while Bayern was pressured into missing 6 times and was blocked 22 times. Chelsea were putting in last ditch tackles and blocks all over the park during both ties and as an attacker, it is always unsettleing to know that you will never have an open look at goal because the opposition will be on you in a flash. Chelsea’s commitment in defense was superb, espeacially Ashley Cole and Cahill.

    Chelsea showed Man City how to beat Napoli, they showed Man Utd how to beat Benfica and they showed the World how to beat Barcelona and Germans in PKs.

    • July 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      I agree with everything except one point, Silas

      Your final comment says that Chelsea showed the world how to beat Barcelona and that isn’t true. Not only did Inter already do the same thing before, but many teams use the exact same strategy every season. The big difference is that those smaller Spanish teams haven’t spent hundreds of millions of euros to acquire a team talented enough to hold Barcelona for two matches.

      The strategy and tactics Chelsea used are nothing new. We La Liga fans see it very often every season. It’s just that Chelsea were better at it—as they should be considering how much money they spent.

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