Can Swindon Catch the Parked Bus?

With Town on a roll, teams are increasingly coming to the County Ground aiming for a draw. But how can you beat an ultra-defensive side? Alex Cooke looks at Di Canio’s options.

Part of the fascination, and some of the frustration, of football lies in that one team can always beat the other regardless of the gap, or gulf, in ability. England did it to Spain the other day, Greece did it to an entire continent in 2004 and a few weeks ago Bradford did it to us. This Saturday, Aldershot have their chance to park the bus…

Whatever the team, their basic tactic remains the same: a deep defence shielded by a compact midfield. From Mourinho’s European Cup win with Inter to Walter Smith’s Rangers in Europe in 2008, the idea if not the formation remains the same. If a team rarely leaves the 18-yard-box there isn’t any space behind them. If their wingers ‘double up’ with the full-backs your wingers won’t be able to isolate their defenders and get crosses in. If their midfield sits just in front of the back four, you can’t thread passes between the central defenders. In short, they park the bus. Or, if you read the coaching manuals, use what is also called an ultra-low block.

Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas believes the solution comes with patience. Speaking to the Independent, he pointed out the value of drawing teams out of position, of using possession and pressure to create indiscipline.

“You will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot.”

That means being picking your moment to drive at the opposition with the ball; to force them to be decisive, to dive into tackles rather than simply jockey or block. It is the exact opposite of what Paul Hart’s Swindon side did when passes across the 18-yard box masqueraded as attacking play.

For most managers there is no need to make radical changes in shape or personnel, not straight away anyway. Instead the team need to focus on what they’ve learnt in training, to be positive and not resorting to speculative shooting from range. That is not until your continual movement has caused the opposition to drop right to the edge of the 18-yard, then Matt Ritchie and Jon Smith should be able to do some damage. But until then, Town need to keep the keep the ball, keep their shape and wait until their probing and pressure leads to defensive mistakes.

Because Swindon do have the players to destroy teams with movement and rapid passing. Richie, Simon Ferry and Lukas Magera in particular have the touch and mobility to perform this role, provoking, teasing and passing through the gaps their movement opens up because the number of bodies in the box matters less than the movement in, and out, of it. And when the reinforcements are required Etiënne Esajas, Lander Gabilondo and Ahmed Abdullah are all very comfortable on the ball.

Another reason that Town do need to be patient is that we do lack is the lump up front. As the clock ticks down there is no Grant Holt to be wheeled into position to bully and bustle the ball into the back of the net. Lukas Magera and Jake Jervis are both slight, despite their height, Alan Connell attacks the ball well but isn’t huge and Medhi Kerrouche’s touch is too loose and he’s too weak in the air to profit under tight marking.

Former Ajax boss Louis Van Gaal advocates a similar solution to Villas-Boas as he places his faith in ‘continuous circulation’, in which the ball is moved quickly from one side to the other, until you change direction, a space opens up inside and you go through it. For Swindon this means using the full width of the pitch, pushing the wingers high and wide and moving the ball swiftly from one side to the other.

This works because an effective ‘parked bus’ usually has a very narrow back four. The defence do this because it allows any gaps to be plugged and knock-downs to be cleared. With the full-backs tucked inside the 18-yard box it also demands that the wide-men shuttle up and down outside them, almost as additional full-backs. And so space exists for in the wide positions for the attacking side, particularly for the full-backs and particularly on the touchline.

For the wingers, Di Canio would need to swap his usual inside-out wingers. Ritchie could still operate on the right but as Bradford proved, Raffa De Vita is too right-footed to offer width from the left. Gabilondo looks to come inside regularly but has the ability to play either side, but with a crowded box Esajas could be a better fit, and his ability to shoot from range would prove valuable if the block starts to drop too deep.

The full-back can be even more important than the wingers as they are the ‘spare men’ in that if the opposition are playing a 442 with the full-backs inside the box they have no direct opponents. For them to be marked the opposition forwards need to track them, or risk one of the midfielders coming out to meet them, again leaving a gap for the likes of Simon Ferry to pass or run through.

Town do have an inherent advantage when it comes to moving the ball from flank to flank; Alan McCormack. While most Division Two teams have a pair of lumps at centre back, Swindon have an experienced central midfielder.

With the opposition forwards sat back, he should be free to anchor the attacks, while also leaving sufficient defence cover. And while long-range passing isn’t the strongest part of McCormack’s game, he should still be able to keep the ball moving quickly and the opposition shifting their position.

But what if all of this doesn’t work? What if the bus stays in place and every pass and is blocked? Gus Poyet, former Town assistant boss, has another solution:” It’s important to mix up your game. If what you do all the time hasn’t been working, a deep defence can get comfortable, so change it around …the option of going more direct can cause defenders problems and surprise them. Play the odd ball earlier than usual.”

So once you’ve passed and moved, waited and circulated, and even lofted early balls into the box, what can be done to beat a truly well-organised defence? Absolutely nothing. That is at least according to the great Arrigo Saachi. The former Milan boss told Jonathan Wilson about his training sessions in which pitted his defence of goalkeeper Giovanni Galli, Mauro Tassotti, Paolo Maldini, Billy Costacurta and Franco Baresi against a 10 attacking players, including Ruud Guillit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten.

“They had 15 minutes to score against my five players, the only rule was that if we won possession or they lost the ball, they had to start over from 10 metres inside their own half. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not once.”

So we’ll be fine the next time a team park the bus at the County Ground, so long as Town show belief, patience, control and happen not to be playing against probably the best defence ever created. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Photo courtesy of – Swindon Bus Garage (Martin Addison) / CC BY-SA 2.0

9 comments

  • While not as tactically astute as those make in the article, the very obvious point I would add is that scoring early is the single most effective way of ensuring a tight defensive until has to open up and push forward. The longer they keep us out, the more encouraged a tight defence will become by the strategy. Hit them early, and the ‘park the bus’ game plan disintegrates.

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  • Ron,
    Whilst not as eloquently put, I was barking exactely this against Bradford from the DR although my personal view of the game was slightly different. I believe that we put them under so much continuous pressure we physically prevented them from coming out, as opposed to that being their primary tactic to stay back. We were far too rushed in posession, too keen to get crosses in etc and we should have been far more patient in our build up play. To be truthful the CG faithful do not always help as we are always urging the lads to attack too!!

    Great Post

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    • I agree. Behind where I sit towards the back of the Arkells there’s this girl who constantly shouts “FORWARD!! FORWARD!!” at every opportunity. Utterly pointless…

      Town hardly sit back at home, but there is some evidence to back up our keeness resulting in an inefficiency in front of goal, perhaps because they’re rushing it. Despite winning 55% of the possession at the CG (ranked 2nd) we do need to increase the number of shots, which averages just shy of 11 per game, ranked only 11th of all hosts in League Two.

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  • It’s a good point and one I missed. Our crowd are on masse pretty intolerant of anything that smacks of caution or patience. Perhaps I should have mentioned the need for education of fans – or at least for some of the more vocal ones.

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  • Oh yes and I wasn’t at the Bradford game due to birth of our second daughter so I can’t, and didn’t, comment too much on what went on in that game.

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