As I write this, Arsenal fans are still in shock/anger over the loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup fifth round. Somebody actually quit our Facebook group over this. It’s hard not be emotional about the missed opportunity to win a trophy this year, but let’s take a look at some facts:
Blackburn’s former manager Henning Berg was sacked after 57 days, and replaced by Michael Appleton on January 11, 2013. Since Appleton’s first game as manager (which was a 2–1 defeat against Charlton Athletic), the Rovers have allowed only 2 goals in all competitions and are currently riding a 6-game unbeaten streak (that includes today’s result). In the FA Cup competition so far, Blackburn have allowed 0 goals.
Blackburn was relegated to the Championship at the end of last season, and are in 8th place in that league (6 points away from the promotion playoff zone). So it’s safe to say nobody was expecting them to win by going toe-to-toe with Arsenal’s attacking style of football. Like most lower-tier teams, Blackburn could only hope to win or draw at the Emirates by parking the bus.
With that in mind, why would anybody expect that this would be an easy win for the Gunners?
Since this is a Canadian blog, I’ll draw a parallel between parking the bus and the Neutral Zone trap. Back in 1995, I watched in horror as my beloved Detroit Red Wings lost 4 straight games to the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings were the #1 seed overall, as they had the best record during the regular season. The Devils struggled during the first half of the regular season, and finished 5th in the Eastern Conference. The Stanley Cup Finals should have been a mere formality for Detroit, were it not for the Neutral Zone trap employed by New Jersey.
In hockey, the Neutral Zone trap is used by the defending team to clog up the middle area of the rink, forcing the offensive team to try move the puck to the sides rather than down the middle. Defenders are waiting near the sides to intercept the puck and regain possession. This technique allows less-skilled teams to keep stronger teams at bay (with the help of some clutching and grabbing).
“The most important aspect that is that it requires all five defending players to know how to defend, skate, and work together in position.” – New Jersey Devils and the neutral zone trap
Ok, back to football. Parking the bus refers to keeping most (if not all) of your players behind the ball, thus clogging up the middle area and making it difficult for the other team to score. There are simply too many players concentrated in the area in and around the penalty box. Unless you’re Barcelona, you’ve got no room to maneuver and set up those nifty one-two moves and find open space behind the defenders. As long as they’re patient and can hold their shape, they can let your team pass the ball around the perimeter, with no real threat, and wait for counter-attacking opportunities.
So on one hand, you’ve got Blackburn who’s enjoyed some success recently by playing a stingy, organized defense, and on the other hand you’ve got Arsenal who’s preoccupied with the upcoming Champions League fixture and also fighting for 4th place in the Premier League. Not to mention inconsistent and mentally fragile. You could critique the team selection (hindsight is 20/20), but I’m not sure we would have done any better if we had started the ‘A’ team. Simply put, parking the bus (like the Neutral Zone trap) is a common, effective technique for shutting down offenstive-minded teams.
Martin Keown, on BBC Radio 5 live today: “Blackburn showed what can happen in football if you keep going, you’re resolute, and you’re well organised.”
To Arsenal’s credit, we did generate a couple of good scoring chances. If Gervinho had scored in the first half, it would have forced Blackburn to open up a bit and actually try to score. Rosicky shot one off the crossbar in the second half, and Arteta’s attempt to put the ball through the goalkeeper failed.
I admit this article won’t make you feel any better. But let me end with an anecdote about the Red Wings: although they were swept away in 1995, they did come back to win the Stanley Cup in 1997 and 1998, using a system called the Left Wing Lock. In this system, the forward player on the left side would track back to help on defense, thus allowing the defender on the right side to push forward and support the forward player on the right side. This helped to break the neutral zone trap. Think about that the next time you see Walcott speeding down the wing.