Huddersfield Town are clearly the worst team in the Premier League. At present, they sit in last place, 10 points from safety. It would be a miracle if this team avoided relegation again this season, and their fans seem aware of this. They are savoring their moment in the first division and appear to have adopted a “happy to be here” mentality. That mentality was apparent during their match against Manchester City on Sunday, a contest they ultimately lost 3-0.
Furthermore, Huddersfield is dealing with the recent departure of manager David Wagner. With Mark Hudson now at the helm of a team facing the drop, the Terriers must rely on straightforward, defense focused tactics going forward as a way to grind out results. The “park the bus” approach, the universally used label for any ultra-defensive strategy, is the best chance Huddersfield have at picking up any points, particularly against a team of the quality of Manchester City.
Granted, the chance this tactic gives them, or any other team for that matter, is still not always a very good one. Five Thirty Eight only gave Huddersfield a 7% chance of victory and a 16% chance of a draw prior to the match. I’d guess that Mark Hudson would take a 23% chance to get points from City, but I’d also guess that he knew that percentage drops if his team do anything but park the bus.
Executing this gameplan is far from an exact science though, as it can be used with a variety of formations and defensive principles within the low block. It is also highly dependent on the degree with which these teams exploit counterattacking opportunities since that is the time they will be most vulnerable in their own end. Regardless, the defensive principles of the individual players is what drives the success of this strategy. Communication and seamless marking trade offs are vitally important when you’re inviting the other team to set up camp in your half.
Huddersfield Town implemented it with a narrow 4-5-1 formation that prioritizes congesting the central channel where the midfield and defensive lines often sat less than 5 yards apart. Adama Diakhaby was the lone outlet on the counter and his teammates were quite hesitant to join the party, especially when the game was still close.
The Terriers actually executed Hudson’s strategy very well in the first 45 minutes of the match. Not only were they able to contain the best attack in European football, but they were also able to frustrate the Blues in the process. The mental toll it takes to break a team like this down is real and it showed with a lack of energy and crisp passing from Guardiola’s side. City’s chances were few and far between and the lone goal came off a deflection from a low probability shot from distance, the exact type of attempts you are trying to encourage with this setup.
Manchester City finished the match with 2.01 expected goals (xG) according to UnderStat, but only 0.65 xG (32%) came in the first half. The majority of those expected goals occurred in the final 45 minutes, where the coherence of City’s attack was much better. You can attribute that in part to the growing deficit forcing Huddersfield to abandon their tactics and get more on the front foot, but Guardiola also changed his team shape in the second half to unlock more scoring opportunities.
One of the primary challenges of playing against a team like this is pushing too many players forward and getting stuck in the teeth of the defense. Free flowing football is hard to achieve when trying to pass through 9 players but it is also difficult to ignore all the space the opponent is giving you. Hudson wanted the Blues to accept that space and try to get through them in areas where the Terriers clearly had the advantage in numbers. This often left City’s front five caught in the congestion of the Huddersfield defense, disrupting the linkup from Fernandinho and the backline.
The City players regularly got split into two groups of five like this where the attack relied on chipped balls over the top or individual skill to beat defenders one-on-one. It’s difficult to create quality chances in this shape, especially when Huddersfield refused to get pulled out of position.
Guardiola looked visibly frustrated in the first half, but the changes he made at the break were effective. The primary objective was to eliminate the separation that was occurring the first half and provide a more constant linkup. Kevin De Bruyne, who had been getting caught in between the lines previously, was allowed to sit in a deeper position while Kyle Walker could further forward.
Having De Bruyne in that position as opposed to Walker forced the Huddersfield midfield to step out to account for the Belgian’s playmaking ability. They could no longer bunker in their preferred shape with someone of De Bruyne’s skill picking out a pass. Simultaneously, Walker’s pace was a threat to get in behind and the backline had to account for that. The spaces within the Terrier’s defense were more exploitable in this shape and two quick goals were the result.
Mark Hudson knew his gameplan would force him to pick his poison, you’ll always be exposed somewhere when you play like this. In the first half, he chose correctly by betting his team could handle service into the box and attacking dribbles from the wing. He was put in a lose-lose situation in the second half. Guardiola had the high ground and didn’t have to do much to back Huddersfield into a corner.
Unfortunately for Mark Hudson and Huddersfield, the main concern with the tactics employed is that every goal scored by the opponent loosens the parking brake on that bus just a bit. Even at 1-0, you can maintain status quo and still hope to get lucky with an equalizer from a set piece or counter. Once the deficit reaches two, and then three goals, you face a decision. Do we want to step out and try to get back into the match? Doing so leaves you susceptible to give up even more goals. This decision and subsequent transition out of the ultra-defensive mindset and tactics may be the hardest part about executing it.
The Terriers faced a Manchester City team well versed in playing against teams that employ this gameplan. Yet is still encouraging to see them adapt throughout the game and patiently probe the defense. The return of Benjamin Mendy will prove to be massive in future matchups like this. He is tailor-made for these situations were he can fire crosses in from the left wing and City can flood the box with attackers.
To Huddersfield’s credit, they executed well for 45 minutes but it is incredibly challenging to maintain the defensive awareness required for this tactic to be successful over the entirety of a match. It can be taken as a lesson to future clubs that implement a similar idea. The science behind parking the bus can be a successful one, but you have the get the ingredients just right, and perhaps throw in a bit of luck, for it to work.