In September 2004 Chelsea and Tottenham played a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge. After the match Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho commented “As we say in Portugal they brought the bus and left it in front of the goal. I would have been frustrated if I had been a supporter who paid £50 to watch this game because Spurs came to defend. I’m really frustrated because there was only one team looking to win, they only came not to concede – it’s not fair for the football we played.”
“Parking the bus” has since become a well-used term in football vernacular. Ironically Mourinho himself has become an expert in having his teams do exactly that same thing when he has felt a 0-0 draw would suit him.
Despite making noises about playing an attacking line-up, Harry Redknapp parked the bus on Wigan Athletic on Friday night. The wily East Londoner had clearly made up his mind that a 0-0 draw was what he wanted. With an away record of W8 D5 L10 Redknapp’s team had the least number of points away from home of the top six in clubs the Championship division. In comparison their home record was bettered only by champions, Leicester City.
Latics go to Loftus Road tomorrow to play a team that has lost only two league games all season on their home ground. One of those was to Leicester and the other was to play-off contenders Reading.
Loftus Road has never been an easy place for visiting teams. The pitch measures 102 by 66 meters, on the small side compared with the standard dimensions of 105 by 68 meters stipulated by the Premier League and UEFA. The stadium itself is small, with a capacity of 18,360. The stadium feels tightly enclosed as all four stands meet with no gaps and fans are closer to the pitch than at other stadia. Away teams can easily feel intimidated as the crowd noise reverberates in a compact space.
It is a difficult task for Rosler’s team, which has played 61 games this season. However, Latics are used to playing against the odds. In March they went to the Etihad Stadium to defeat a Manchester City side that had won 12 of its 13 home matches in the Premier League, scoring 43 goals. Rosler might be right in saying that QPR have three times the wage bill of Latics, and they do have some quality players, but they pale in comparison with the might of Manchester City.
Redknapp might well have done his homework prior to Friday’s game. If he had then he would have expected Latics to struggle against a massed defence. They have done so all season. During Rosler’s tenure they have had most of their best results away from home, where they have more room to play. They won 4-1 at playoff rivals Nottingham Forest, 3-0 at Sheffield Wednesday and had hard fought wins at Brighton, Derby and Reading.
Despite what seemed to be a bad result on Friday, Rosler did not seem over concerned. He acknowledged that his wing backs had not pushed forward sufficiently. It could be because Redknapp had planted Hoilett and Traore in wide positions as a tactical ploy to hold back Perch and Beausejour. Or maybe Rosler had wanted to keep things tight and not push them as far forward as usual.
Rosler saying that the pressure is now on QPR might be playing mind games with Redknapp, but could also be a statement he genuinely believes. So what will Rosler’s tactics be tomorrow?
It would be ironic if the German were to turn the tables on Redknapp by parking the bus too. Allowing the home team to do the work of breaking down a massed defence, at least in the first half, would conserve the energy of his players for a concerted push later in the game.
But then again Rosler might go for broke by blitzing QPR from the start. To do so he would be asking a lot from players with already tired legs. However, with vigorous high pressing from the start Latics could disrupt the home team’s play and possibly secure an early goal. Getting that goal could be psychologically huge for a Latics side that has lost some of its self-confidence through a string of indifferent results.
It will be interesting to see if Rosler continues to operate with a back line of three central defenders and wing backs. He did so in the victory at the Etihad, but reverted to a flat back four in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal. When Latics visited QPR in March he played a back line of Rogne, Ramis and Kiernan. It was a tight game, with Latics a little unfortunate to lose 1-0.
Unfortunately it looks like Latics will be without the excellent Ivan Ramis tomorrow. Rosler’s gamble of playing him at Blackburn misfired, with the Spaniard going off injured at half time. Ramis could make a huge difference in the centre of defence if he were fit.
Gary Caldwell looked comfortable on Friday, but the defence were put under little pressure by a defensive QPR side. Playing him tomorrow would be another gamble and it could misfire. However, Rosler boldly thrust the Scot into the FA Cup semi-final and it came off.
This could prove to be one match too many for Latics at the end of a marathon season. They have done so well to get into the playoffs after a poor managerial appointment in summer left them heading towards the lower reaches of the table by December. Win or lose, the fans will continue to back Rosler.
If Wigan were to lose tomorrow it might well be the last match for the club for a number of players recruited in the Premier League era. Another year in the Championship would mean tightening the purse belts and letting the larger wage earners move on.
However, having seen what Latics have done before when the odds were stacked against them, only a fool would count them out.