When he finally gives up the day job as a football manager, José Mourinho, might just be able to find work as a bus driver. He is famous within the beautiful game for ‘parking the bus’, a derogatory phrase he used to bemoan Tottenham’s defensive tactics in a game against his Chelsea team back in 2004.
But Mourinho would later be hoisted by his own petard, with accusations that he parked the bus – tactically speaking – in his second spell at the Blues and in his tenures at Manchester United and Roma. So, what does park the bus actually mean in a football context?
Where Does the Phrase ‘Park the Bus’ in Football Originate?
Who better to explain the meaning behind ‘park the bus’ than the phrase’s originator?
Speaking about his side’s stalemate with Spurs in September 2004, Mourinho chastised the club for their ‘defend, defend, defend’ approach. “As we say in my country, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal,” the Portuguese explained. It was the first time that ‘parking the bus’ entered the lexicon of football in the UK, and it would soon become a mainstay used to explain the tactics – or lack thereof – of sides like those managed by Mourinho and other, less fashionable outfits like Stoke City.
As Many Players Defending the Edge of Their Own Penalty Area
Parking the bus refers to teams that have as many of their players defending the edge of their own penalty area as possible. It’s a strategy that has been used in football for decades – it could be the Faroe Islands trying to minimise the scale of their defeat against England, or a Premier League club trying manfully to get a point or more against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
In addition to the goalkeeper, a park the bus style set-up will see four or five defenders in a line defending in front of their own goal, while another bank of four or five shields them in front. Often, parking the bus will require a striker to drop deep too and close down opposition midfielders, although sometimes they are left higher up the pitch to act as an out-ball for the counter attack.
Leicester City vs Manchester City: September 2020
Leicester City’s 5-2 victory over Manchester City in September 2020 was the perfect example of parking the bus but leaving the handbrake off. Teams that park the bus look to limit the amount of space that the opposition has to play in, and while they are happy to concede possession of the ball, they will not allow the opponents to create clear goalscoring opportunities – that’s the idea, anyway.
Parking the bus has negative connotations because it is used to describe teams that won’t necessarily try to win a game – if they can keep a clean sheet, and thus earn a 0-0 draw, then they are happy enough.
Which Teams Have Famously Parked the Bus?
Although he was quick to dish out the accusations of bus parking, ironically it’s José Mourinho’s teams that have become synonymous with the dark art. Although free spirited enough in his early spells at Porto and Chelsea, it was a tenure in Italian football with Inter Milan – where some of the best defending in world football is carried out – where the Special One seemingly learned the craft.
His second spell at Chelsea, plus turns at Manchester United and Tottenham, were tarnished with a fondness for docile, defensive football – an accusation Mourinho himself rallied against despite being presented with evidence to the contrary. Mind you, all that being said, here’s a guy that’s won six ‘big five’ league titles and two Champions Leagues, so Mourinho has certainly maximised his bus parking prowess.
Other managers have deployed the bus successfully too. Although slightly more attacking in his outlook, Diego Simeone makes sure he has as many bodies back behind the ball as possible when defending – conceding few goals, his Atletico Madrid side have overachieved beyond their expectations with two La Liga titles and a pair of Champions League final appearances under the Argentine.
When you cannot compete financially with the other teams in your league, and therefore have to find some kind of an edge with players of a lesser ability, parking the bus can be a way to win points without asking anything more from your team than to be disciplined, diligent and hard working. That’s a foundation for much of Sean Dyche’s relative success in football.
Having made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear at both Burnley and Everton, Dyche continues to be one of the most committed bus conductors in modern football. But at those two brassic clubs he had no choice; defending deep with both and doing enough to win the requisite points tallies to prevent them from being relegated.
What Formations Are Used to Park the Bus?
The general premise of parking the bus is to have as many of your players as possible between your goal and the ball. There are certain formations and systems that lend themselves to parking the bus, with 4-5-1, 5-4-1 and even 5-5-0 particular favourites of managers seeking to grind out a 0-0 draw.
Often, the formation specified won’t reflect the reality of a team’s shape on the pitch, with players dropping into defensive holes that go beyond traditional football tactics. Pretty it often ain’t, but parking the bus can be the ideal strategy for teams looking to upset the odds and get a result based on sound defensive principles.