As the surviving teams gear up for their moment of truth at Euro 2012, the lesson from the losing quarter-finalists is clear — don’t “park the bus.”
The phrase, widely attributed to Jose Mourinho during the Portuguese coach’s time at Chelsea, is a swipe at teams who play a defensive game by putting 10 or even all 11 players behind the ball. The image is of players arriving at the stadium on the team bus and then leaving it parked in front of their goal.
It doesn’t work. At least not at this year’s European Championships.
“These types of games, in this type of competition, are always very tense and you need to have the know-how to win them,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said after his team’s quarter-final victory over France.
One by one, the Czech Republic, Greece, France and England all made their exits at the quarter-final stage after trying to “park the bus” in front of technically superior opponents — Portugal, Germany, Spain and Italy, respectively.
Admittedly, Italy needed a penalty shootout to dispatch England, but only after utterly dominating and somehow failing to convert a host of opportunities to score from close range.
England, for their part, looked threatening for the first five minutes, then timid for the next 115 minutes of the quarter-final and you can’t expect to win matches with only 36 percent of the possession.
The Czech Republic took defensive play to its logical extreme, by not managing a single shot on target for the entire 90 minutes of their 1-0 loss to Portugal.
Greece’s defensive fortress was only forced into a “Plan B” after “Plan A” was wrecked by Philipp Lahm’s barreling shot into the net shortly before halftime. Georgios Samaras briefly equalized after the break, but his team were simply overran as the Greece defense finally crumbled in the face of Germany’s attack.
France had probably the most difficult task against Spain, the world and European champions, and probably tried the hardest to come out of defense, but Les Bleus still found themselves on the back foot for most of the game, as Spain patiently worked the ball around in search of an opening.
That’s the fatal flaw in parking the bus. What looks like a sensible strategy on the outside nearly always condemns the weaker team to defeat, especially at the very highest level of the game.
It starts out as a war of attrition, but eventually the best teams will pull their opponents out of position just enough to squeeze in a killer pass — as Spain did against France — or find the space to unleash a shot from nowhere — as Germany did against Greece.
Or it might be just a momentary lapse of concentration.
Czech Republic rightback Theodor Gebre Selassie had a fine tournament and kept his eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo for all but half a dozen of the 5,400 seconds of their match. The only problem was with the half dozen, when Ronaldo drifted in behind Gebre Selassie unseen, before darting in front of him to head home the only goal of the game.
Germany coach Joachim Loew’s brand of attacking play has been by far the most entertaining of the tournament, whatever striking option he has used. Loew dropped all three of his forwards from the group stage for the quarter-finals, bringing in Miroslav Klose, Andre Schuerrle and Marco Reus.
Yet Germany’s ability to strike down the middle or from the flanks remained every bit as sharp. Klose and Reus both scored in the convincing 4-2 win over Greece.