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.
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.
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”.
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.