Park The Bus: The Underdog’s way

This week is an international break in the football world and as I was thinking of what to blog on, I remembered the story of T.E. Lawrence retold by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath. The British general, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, led the Arab revolt against the Turkish army occupying Arabia about the end of the First World War and achieved an upset against a very formidable foe. The British then were helping the Arabs in the face-off and wanted to obliterate the long rail road built by the Turks, which was running from Damascus into the Hejaz desert.

T.E. Lawrence was not a trained soldier; he was an archaeologist and a poet and all he had as troops for combat were a group of Bedouin nomads. In fact one of the British commanders in the region then, Sir Reginald Wingate, described Lawrence’s army as “an untrained rabble, most of whom have never fired a rifle.” These Arabs, however, had certain qualities going for them, Lawrence himself later wrote: movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country courage. Consequently, these men kept on attacking the Turks and dynamited rails after rails.

The major upset however came from an assault on the port of the town of Aqaba. The Turks were expecting an attack from British ships patrolling the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba to the West but Lawrence decided to change tactic and attack from the East, through the dangerous desert marauded by cobras and black snakes. That move was not anticipated by the Turks and it caught them off guard. It was reported that Lawrence’s troop only lost two men but killed or captured one thousand, two hundred Turks.

This feat reminded me of one person—Jose Mourinho and his park the bus tactics. For those of you who follow football, you’d know that park the bus, was the brain child of The Special One, who made the term popular after his initial arrival to the English elite league, following an unlikely success in the Champions league in 2004. This tactic ensured that Jose when playing a team that is more superior than his side in attacking prowess, would stifle play by ensuring there is little space for the opposition to operate fully. Usually when a superior team plays a less superior one, you’d expect a flurry of goals and domination, but with Mourinho’s tactic, even the so-called superior one is even more susceptible to a loss! Manuel Pellegrini, City’s boss, complained weeks back when Chelsea squared up against the champions at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester that “I think we played during 90 minutes against a small team trying to defend, trying to keep 10 players in front of their goal and [City were] a team that wanted to win from the beginning.” Pellegrini managed to avoid humiliation that time and Manchester City salvaged a draw, thanks to on-loan Chelsea legend, Frank Lampard, who probably had the antidote to parking the bus.

Liverpool won’t forget in a hurry what went down last year when they played Chelsea and the Blues had to contend with a lot of first team players missing in action. It turned out that that bizarre circumstance led to Chelsea easily winning the game, because all they had to do was, sit in their own half and give the play to the home side. It was only a matter of time for Stephen Gerald to slip up in his own half of the midfield and give Demba Ba, Chelsea’s then Senegalese striker, the opportunity to slot home an unlikely goal. The game ended up in favour of the underdog for that day as Chelsea scored another goal in extra time to shatter Liverpool’s title ambition. We all know how Jose has employed this tactic against teams like Barcelona and others in Europe. It’s not only Mourinho that resort to this style; we have some teams too who organize themselves in defensive units when they want to play a superior opposition.

The fascinating thing that I have observed about Jose Mourinho’s tactic is that other teams don’t like it. Coaches and players of the opposing team complain when it works against them, and more often than not, it does! One thing to note however, from Mourinho’s tactic, or that of Lawrence of Arabia, is that they turn a seeming disadvantage into an advantage— it becomes their competitive strategy. Yes they may be the underdog, but that doesn’t mean they would cower.

Now, like Gladwell alluded in David and Goliath, the underdog’s way is hard— not too many teams will  be able to defend and organize their back to accommodate a flurry of attacking pressure from a superior opposition. Many teams will crack and eventually concede goals—even Jose’s (Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich, Super cup final). The team usually employing this tactic will need to employ a high work rate. They will need to operate at better fitness level and cover more distance—defending deep while maintaining a high concentration that ensures that they stick to their plans. The underdog’s way is hard and for many, unsustainable.

The paradox of the underdog is that it looks at disadvantages and turns it right on its head—and it becomes an advantage. You can draw parallels with this in most human endeavors. A company that is so big might be aloof to the yearnings of its customers— they may not give them the kind of service they want, or the specialized attention they require due to the size of their operation. That may be an opportunity beckoning for the smaller guy, not necessarily to come and usurp them, but to find a place to thrive in the market.

Individuals too can begin to look at disadvantages in a different way and begin to change their tactics. Your edge could just be in that little thing you know how to do well. A student with a high IQ may require little time to study and pass very well, but that should not spell doom for the others who may not be that lucky; the underdog way of making up for that will be for the other student to pull off the all-nighters, burning the proverbial (it’s the reality at times in Nigeria!) candle and studying—hard.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to how we see ourselves—the so-called disadvantage— and turn it around for our good. Remember the underdog way is hard, but anything is achievable if we stay put and are willing to work hard at it.

O.P. Philips is a freelance writer/entrepreneur. He is the author of The “OBAMA” in You! His new book, “What Football Teaches About Life” will be released soon.

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