Football has a language of its own. From the player-led development of positional terms such as "The Raumdeuter" (coined by Thomas Muller to describe his "space investigator" role at Bayern Munich) to the invention of derogatory phrases like "Farmer's League" to put down professional leagues lacking in competition, those within the game are regularly expanding the range of colourful vocabulary associated with football.
One term that has really taken hold over football fans is the idea of "parking the bus". It's been used in popular discourse for years now, and is a phrase that's able to immediately bring an image to the mind of most lovers of football. But for anyone who's unsure about this term and its origins, we'll be spending this article explaining exactly what it means to park the bus. We'll take you through the origins of the term and how the tactic looks when applied, before zipping through some high-profile examples of teams that have successfully parked the bus on the biggest stage.
The idea of "parking the bus" is all about out-of-possession defensive shape. When a team parks the bus, essentially what they're doing is setting up a defensive structure for when the opposition team has the ball. At its core, this structure involves pulling the vast majority of outfield players behind the ball, sitting deep and focusing on keeping a strong, compact defensive shape built primarily around zonal marking.
Given that they're sitting so deep, a team that is parking the bus will generally look to create opportunities via fast, direct counter-attacks, rather than by gradually building up possession and progressing the ball forward. By drawing opponents deep into their own half, the defensive team is able to create space further up the pitch that they can then exploit on the counter attack.
Despite this aspect of the tactic, parking the bus is a strategy that receives lots of criticism, with many viewing it as a negative way of approaching a game (some critics would even call it "anti-football"). However, there can be a significant upside to this style of play, hence its repeated use by some of the most astute coaches in the game.
Parking the bus is all about preventing opponents from finding space within your own defensive third, because your defensive and midfield lines are so deep that there is very little room to exploit. By keeping the defensive line extremely rigid and compact and restricting the amount of space opponents are given in attacking areas, this strategy can help limit the amount of chances the opposition team can generate to an absolute minimum.
The defensive shape relies upon both horizontal and vertical compactness, which allows teams to create a strong barrier in front of their own goal. Essentially, the basic premise is that by making the area that you need to mark as small as possible, and then marking it zonally and resisting the urge to press the ball (because this creates gaps that opposition players can exploit), you make the job of defending much simpler. Defenders must fight the urge to press and instead sit back, waiting for the opposition to make their move and denying them the opportunity to find space.
A number of formations can be used to access the benefits of the park the bus soccer strategy, but probably the two most popular and most effective shapes are 4-4-2 (with one forward dropped back slightly) and 4-2-3-1. These two systems lend themselves well to creating two strong, compact banks in defence and midfield, hence their association with parking the bus.
It's about time we dived into the origins of this slightly unusual phrase — where did the term come from in the first place?
When you hear the words "park the bus", probably the first person that comes to mind is Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, who has won a wide range of European and domestic trophies with clubs such as Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale, Real Madrid, and Roma. His association with the phrase is not unwarranted, either. In England, he was the first person to use the phrase "park the bus".
However, this first usage didn't come as a description of Mourinho's own tactics. In fact, he first used it to critique the style of play adopted by Tottenham Hotspur during a 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Spurs in 2004. "As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal," Mourinho told reporters at the time. "I would have been frustrated if I had been a supporter who paid £50 to watch this game because Spurs came to defend."
According to Adam Hurrey, author of Football Cliches, Mourinho's remark came from the Portuguese expression "estacionar o autocarro", used to criticise an extremely defensive performance. And over the following years, it became a term used regularly both by Mourinho himself, and by his critics.
After his Inter team, featuring the likes of Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi, and Wesley Sneijder, famously knocked Pep Guardiola's Barcelona out of the Champions League in 2010, he said "We won the tie in Barcelona, but everyone talks about Barcelona winning and says we parked the bus in front of the goal. We didn't park the bus, we parked the aeroplane, and we did it for two reasons: 1, because we only had ten men, and 2, because we beat them 3-1 at the San Siro, not with the bus, or the boat, or the plane, but by smashing them." Classic Mourinho.
As we explained earlier, when a team focuses on sitting deep, being defensively compact and limiting opposition chances to an absolute minimum throughout 90 minutes so as not to concede a goal, they are often derided for "parking the bus". But as the language we use to discuss football has developed over the years, a less pejorative term has started cropping up to describe roughly the same thing: the low block.
A low block is an out-of-possession defensive strategy centred around a compact, deep-lying defensive line that's designed to limit the space available between opposition attackers and the goal. The priority of the low block is to prevent the opposition from finding space and creating chances in advanced attacking areas. Essentially, what we're talking about here is very similar to what football fans refer to as "parking the bus". So when you hear pundits and experts discussing the use of low blocks in professional football, just think of the deep-lying defensive tactics we've been diving into today.
You can find out more about the strengths and weaknesses of the low block here.
To further flesh out how this tactical set up has been used within the elite game, here are some top-level managers who have been known to "park the bus" at the highest level.
Yep, no surprises here. Mourinho is seen as the classic advocate of this philosophy, largely because he's used this tactic successfully on so many occasions. On the domestic stage, there was Chelsea's famous 2-0 win over Liverpool in 2014, which effectively prevented Rodgers' side from winning the title. But even more famously, Mourinho achieved great success with a counter-attacking low block strategy in the Champions League with Inter, winning the 2010 trophy after knocking out Barcelona and beating Bayern Munich in the final.
Speaking after the famous Barcelona victory, Mourinho said: "We didn't want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position. I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn't want us to have the ball." In this match, Inter provided the perfect example of sitting deep, creating a rigid defensive barrier and refusing to be tempted by the natural desire to win the ball.
Another manager who has received criticism for his defensive soccer tactics is Diego Simeone, but the Argentine coach's methods have allowed Spanish club Atletico Madrid to punch well above their weight, winning multiple domestic titles and achieving numerous impressive runs in the Champions League without the huge budgets of rivals like Real Madrid and Barcelona. Much of that success is built on defensive solidity, with Simeone known for employing a low block when out of possession of the ball. His tendency to "park the team bus", as Mourinho might put it, has allowed defensive players such as Diego Godin, Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez to thrive within his system.
While it has achieved widespread cultural resonance in a way that many phrases fail to achieve, "Park the bus" is just one of several pieces of language propelled into the English footballing lexicon by iconic manager Jose Mourinho. For some more examples of the pearls of wisdom expressed by the so-called Special One, check out our list of 19 Jose Mourinho quotes to motivate and inspire.
Or, if you're looking for more insight into the detailed strategic thinking that has allowed the Portuguese tactician to become one of the most successful and widely celebrated managers of the 21st century, take a look at our guide to tactical periodization, a training model that has had a huge impact on Europe's top leagues.