Parking the bus: What’s wrong with defensive football?

By Matteo and Luca Tiratelli

Football today is plagued by the dogmatic belief that the only acceptable type of football is attacking football. Playing on the front foot and persistently attacking is seen as both aesthetically and morally superior. In its most absurd form you even hear people say that it’s better to play attacking football and lose, than to win any other way.

This restrictive perspective engenders not just recent criticism of José Mourinho’s tactics, and Italian football in general, but also of defenders themselves. A Guardian list of the 100 greatest footballers of 2013 had no defenders in the top ten and only two in the top 20, one of whom (Phillip Lahm) has played in midfield all season. The defenders who do feature in the rest of the list are mostly ball playing defenders like David Luiz and Gerrard Pique. Arguably the best defenses in Europe are to be found at Atlético Madrid and Juventus but none of their back four feature in the list and nor do Gary Cahill or John Terry (who keep Luiz out of the Chelsea team)…

This dogmatic belief in the superiority of attacking has a variety of causes. One of the most seismic changes in football over the last forty years has been the rise of the neutral fan: someone who loves the game but is not affiliated with any particular club. This has dramatically changed people’s expectations. Today it is no longer enough to simply win, teams are expected to entertain. This is a pretty outrageous demand that we wouldn’t make of any other athlete. But the neutrals are not the only ones privileging entertainment above all else. Even the die-hard fans of today are less partisan than they used to be. In England, being a fan used to be an integral component of working class culture; clubs were vehicles of social identity and solidarity. High ticket prices, the decomposition of traditional working class communities, and the extending of football’s appeal across social strata (as matches became safer and family seating areas introduced) has changed the demographics of fandom. Global television deals and the Internet also mean that fans are more diverse than ever. A middle-class Chinese fan will almost certainly care less about winning the local derby and more about the style of football played, but what else could you expect?

And when people demand to be entertained they have only one thing in mind: offensive, attacking football, which often reduces down to mere quantity. The number of goals scored becomes a sign of a club’s moral worth; an indication of the strength of their faith in the holy principles of attacking football. There is a collective blindness toward the beauty of defensive football. Great defensive football is about poise and space, about knowing how the game pitches and flows. Appreciating it requires you to watch for absences, for the sudden way spaces close up and shrink around the attacking player, for subtle positioning which nullifies threats before they even arise. It is not about in-your-face kinetics and crunching tackles but rather the formal qualities of precision and balance. It is about those things that precede action. To quote Paolo Maldini: “if I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”. A perfect game of football would end nil-nil; anything else is down to mistakes.

I realise there won’t be many of you who agree with this rhapsodic description of defensive football. But the fact that no-one questions the spurious equivalence between entertainment and attacking requires explanation, for it is a complex and recent phenomenon. During the 1990s AC Milan went through something of a Golden Age winning the league five times with a team that was built around an all-Italian back four featuring Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. Their most spectacular success has got to be the 1993-4 campaign, when they won Serie A scoring only 36 goals in 34 games; an unparalleled achievement. And at the time this was not considered an affront to football and all its values, in fact the defenders of that era are still remembered and revered.

Some of the blame for this demonization has to go to one-minute highlights reels and the Youtube-isation of football. Defensive football is a long game and absences don’t fit comfortably on short, homemade video clips. Look up your favourite defender and his “best of” compilations will feature only goal line clearances and sliding tackles.

Another factor, which is hard to overstate, has been the way that recent Barcelona and Spain teams have changed how people think about football. Real analysis of tactics by the man-in-the-pub and the press are fairly new, as Alan Hansen was pointing out on his farewell broadcast for MOTD, and as is shown by our newfound admiration for Gary Neville. A major part of this was the fact that Barcelona came along and played in a way that even the casual fan could recognise as revolutionary. Beating Man United 3-1 in the 2011 Champions League Final was great achievement, but it’s the fact that Barcelona had 63% possession that made the game memorable. As an approach to football it was immediately and obviously different to anything that had gone before. And this marks a big shift from ten years ago where the only tactical question was whether to play a straight 4-4-2 or a ‘diamond’. Therefore, if it was Barcelona’s style of play that awakened fans to the tactical side of the game, then its antithesis will be regarded with suspicion or simply ignored.

There is a more patriotic, Anglo-centric factor at play as well. The accepted wisdom is that England’s failure at major tournaments is due to a lack of technical ability and Spanish-style ball retention. As such, the FA report into grassroots football was all about making superior technical players. Therefore when people see English teams playing in a way that stresses physicality or defence, it is seen as regressive. This trend has been exacerbated by the growing use of statistics in football. Data-driven analysis of football is all the rage, despite its many flaws; chief among which is that defensive football is inherently much harder to quantify. Is a defender who makes a lot of tackles actually any good? Look again at Paolo Maldini who reportedly only made one tackle every two games.

The insistence that good football is attacking football has also become a moral issue. People really believe that there is something wrong with José Mourinho’s defensive focus, that playing defensively is an affront to the values of football, that somehow it isn’t really playing football at all. This stems from the misplaced notion that anyone can “park the bus”, that it’s easy and stops the best team from winning. In the modern lexicon, “parking the bus” was a phrase first used to describe the tactics of Big Sam Allardyce at Bolton. It was seen as a legitimate and understandable tactic for a David faced by a Goliath. Now when people see big clubs playing defensively it becomes an admission of inferiority, not just a different way of playing. Firstly, playing good defensive football is not easy; limiting a Liverpool side who have scored over a hundred goals this season to desperate long shots is no mean feat; winning the league whilst only conceding 15 goals is also a testament to great skill. Secondly, to assume that the ‘best’ team didn’t win just because the other team played defensively is circular. If you decide that playing defensively automatically means you are a worse team then a defensive team will never deserve to win anything.

Playing attacking football doesn’t make you a better side, only winning can do that. The decision to play attacking or defensive football is ultimately a tactical one and not a sign of your superior morals. And if you really can’t appreciate the beauty of defensive football then I’ll prescribe you a diet of master-classes in defence from the Italian national side in the 1982 World Cup to the AC Milan of the mid-1990s. That is some of the most beautiful and entertaining football that I’ve ever seen.

7 Responses to “Parking the bus: What’s wrong with defensive football?”
  1. Anon. says:

    I don’t think anybody has a problem with defensive football; I think criticisms start to arise when ostensibly talented teams choose to play exclusively and excessively defensive football for a prolonged run of games (as many of the teams you highlight as shining defensive examples – Chelsea, Atletico, Juve – have at some point this season).

    Attacking football and defensive football are not mutually exclusive. Quite to the contrary, the best teams tend to excel at both styles of play and are able to deploy the more appropriate as and when required.

    As you touch on at the end, good football is neither one extreme nor the other. It’s dynamic, flexible, unpredictable; it’s reactionary.

    It seems that, in your quest for defining ‘good football’ through your rejection of one sort of dogma, you risk stumbling towards the other end of the spectrum, just as dogmatic, just as restrictive.

    The biggest amplifier of football’s entertainment value is an open mind.

    • matteo says:

      I don’t think we ever tried to define “good football” – we were trying to work out why people seem to think that there is something wrong with defensive football. And to show some of the beauty of the defensive game while we were at it.

      Also: “ostensibly talented teams choose to play exclusively and excessively defensive football”. Straight away you’re suggesting that there’s something wrong with excessive or exclusively defensive football. And that somehow if a team is too defensive it can’t be truly talented. This surely is the dogma we were writing about…

      • Max says:

        Are you two saying that you got old videos of the 1982 World Cup and the Serie A games of AC Milan watching the whole 90 minutes of football? Highlights aren’t of interceptions, tackles in the centre circle and a great defensive line. Did you really watch Piacenza 0-0 Milan or the other 6 0-0s they had that season?

  2. asdf says:

    Great read. Also, a new Nike commercial supports the attacking, risk-oriented bias:

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