Parking The Bus – The Low Block And How To Break It Down

Parking The Bus – The Low Block And How To Break It Down

By Sachin Prabhu Ram.

What Is A Low Block?

The low block is a defensive system where the players defend very deep in their own territory and restrict the space for opposition players to exploit. It is a more static form of defence, as there is not much movement compared to a team playing with high pressing intensity. Another term that Jose Mourinho coined for this system of play is ‘parking the bus’.

A low block is seen as a more inferior and boring tactic, but is very effective nonetheless. Unlike teams such as the sextuple winning FC Barcelona or World Cup-winning Spain, these teams do not dominate possession at all, and tend to have less than 50% possession on average.

Unlike the Gegenpressing or counter-pressing implemented by the likes of Jürgen Klopp, the teams do not press high up the pitch and counter-attack. Instead, they overload the key central areas, get the ball back, and counter-attack in numbers.

One key thing that can be noticed is that teams with a low block play with wide midfielders instead of wingers. This means that they opt for a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 instead of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.

The two banks of 4 allow for a good foundation and defensive stability while the opponents are attacking. The two attackers in the 4-4-2 or the lone striker in the 4-1-4-1 remain further up the pitch to be ready for counter-attacking. The general positions of both formations are shown below.

The low block above is set up in a 4-4-2 shape, while example below is 4-1-4-1.

Case Study: Atlético Madrid

Under Diego Simeone, Atlético Madrid are one of the most famous teams that implement the low block. This system has brought them a lot of success, winning La Liga once and going to many Champions League finals in this decade alone.

Atlético’s main formation is a 4-4-2 or sometimes a 4-5-1 against very strong and creative opposition. This is how they generally look like while defending:

The two attackers near Jordan Henderson on the far left are waiting for the Liverpool players to lose the ball by either taking long shots, misplacing passes, or simply by getting tackled.

When this happens, they start running the opposite direction to make space for the counter-attack in the hope of creating a chance on goal at the other end.

That’s why most of Atlético’s goals this season come against the run of play. The set of four at the back generally stay closer together in the centre and play very aggressively.

The aggression of the centre-backs adds a lot to the game. The type of centre-back that Simeone looks for are big, heavy stoppers. The team does not rely much on ball-playing defenders but more on defenders that charge directly, win their aerial duels, and are adept at interceptions and blocks. An example of this would be former player Diego Godin or his successor José Gimenez.

Of course, while talking about the defence, we simply cannot forget the man between the sticks that keep this wall together: Jan Oblak.

His height gives him the advantage in set pieces and all aerial balls which allow him to catch the ball easily. Add this to his insane reflexes and immense shot-stopping ability and it is easy to see why he is the best goalkeeper in the world and what he adds to Atlético’s defensive stability.

How To Break Down The Block

Now that we have understood what the low block is, it is time to have a look at how to break it down.

There are two factors that can help break down the block: creative players and width.

In the first image above, the low block is not very wide. It takes up the centre and the half-spaces but not the wings, which is better illustrated below.

The key to breaking this down is ideally using a 4-2-3-1 with narrow attackers or a 4-3-3 with inside forwards that cut inside when needed.

The full-backs also need to be competent at attacking by making crosses, playing short passes, and be intelligent at making runs. When the full-backs bomb forward, the wide players of the team with the low block are attracted wide and are stretched out in both directions as the full-back and wide midfielders on both sides are drawn out to the flanks.

These overlapping wing-backs create width for the team, and the three attacking midfielders can cut inside and play narrowly as shown below.

The blue team full-backs stretch out the red team’s wide players and create a lot of space centrally. The blue team’s attacking midfield three can now cut inside into space and attack the defenders and midfielders that remain central.

This is paired up with one of the other important skills to break down the low block: creative attacking midfielders.

Midfielders like Lionel Messi or Hakim Ziyech, who can break down a defence with a neat dribble or with line-breaking passes to the striker, are great in this regard. But as every team that faces a low-block does not have a player of that calibre, there is an alternative technique that is employed –short passes.

Playing short passes inside the box means that they can progress the ball around the pitch and get through the defence, as shown below.

This progresses the ball to the box where the No. 9 can score or shoot from near the edge of the penalty box, being set up by the attacking midfielders who look to create a goalscoring opportunity.

Both executing a low block successfully, and breaking it down, is easier said than done, but this is just some of the theory behind breaking down the low block and scoring against an ultra-defensive team.


  • comment-avatar
    Samson 3 years ago

    Well said. This is a great analysis on how to break a low defensive line/packing the bus.
    WIDTH and CREATIVE PLAYERS are definitely important and in the event that a team doesn’t have creative players, they can use an alternative playing short passes.

    One thing you forgot to mention though is that when a team decides to use short passes to break down a low block, they’ll be operating in very little spaces and if the attacking team doesn’t have enough players that are high in technique(Creative Players) they’ll just keep passing the ball sideways unable to find space.

    A very good example is Liverpool. Fine set of players with high stamina and pace but the starting line up always seriously lacks technique. The only proper technical players in the team are Thiago and Keita. Another good mention would be Shaqiri(Klopp wouldn’t replace him for Salah because of insecurity. Shaqiri is better as RW not CM), Fabinho (he’s playing CB these days) and Firmino who’s off and forgetting how to be technical.
    The main team Mane, Salah, Henderson, Robertson, Jones, Milner, Chamberlain, Wijnaldum. They’re only speed and stamina. They’re zero technically.
    This poses a very serious problem for Liverpool whenever they play against teams that pack the bus because the current Liverpool are not the type of players that perform well in tiny spaces. They’ll keep passing sideways.

    Contrast them with Man City. Debruyne, Bernando, Foden, Mahrez, Gundogan, Rodri, Laporte, Ruben. These players are bathed in technique. They have great ball control, great short passes, top body balance to move in small spaces so it’s easy for them to break any low block defence. Although that also is an issue. In my opinion, when there is unbalance especially when technique is more than grit, the team will suffer hence Man City’s inability to do well in the UCL where teams would hardly pack the bus and play high pressing. That’s an entire different discussion for another day lol.

    Even Chelsea recently enjoy a fair share of technique(Creative Players) in Ziyech, Kovacic, Mount, Jorginho, Giroud, Kante. What this team needs imo is Arturo Vidal/ Javi Martinez to balance grit.

    Until teams like Liverpool or Man City find that balance, they’ll always have problems when the tactics is figured out. Can’t be playing only Thiago amidst 9 or 10 non technical teammates. They’ll make him look bad. Likewise Man City shouldn’t be playing only Kyle Walker as grit while the others are only technical. That’s a big problem if the opposition team can press high properly using physicality and stamina.

  • comment-avatar
    Billy 3 years ago

    This makes no sense in the breakdown section. Why in the middle picture of how to break down the block section would it ever be reasonable for the the two wide defenders to both chase 1 player? And on both sides at the same time? This would never happen. Second, and more importantly, tactics are always relative to the position of the ball. Players define their positions defensively  relative to the ball not in relation to other players movements. How close a player marks their opposition is always relative to how close they are to the ball. You never have these perfect evened out spaces in football. It’s always shifted one side or the other. Even when the ball is in the middle section, defensively a team shapes themselves to force a team to one side using their strikers. Offensively, the most obvious misconception is using runs to break pressure. You use the ball to break pressure. Every player watches the ball, so if you want to move into a space unmarked you move the ball out of that space so defenders are focused somewhere other then where you want to run. The reason tiki taka was so effective is Barca moved the ball to force their opposition to chase the ball and move out of position. Then with their superior technical ability, they simply used the fact that the ball moves faster than the player to move the ball to one direction and when the defenders shift to adjust they move it back to the newly left spaces before they could shift back. Xavi and iniesta were short and slow but were always open because they knew how to move the ball to create space by moving to the spaces where defenders left to chase the ball somewhere else. This article makes so many assumptions that are disconnected from the realities of actually playing the game at a high level

  • comment-avatar
    Frank 2 years ago

    I thoroughly enjoyed all of these articles. Very well reasoned and countered. 
    More please from experienced coaches.