UCL Final 2022/23: How can Simone Inzaghi stifle Pep Guardiola’s tactics to prevent a historic treble? – tactical preview
The Champions League final is the most anticipated match of the European football season. It is the culmination of a long and exhaustive campaign that pits the best teams from different countries against each other. This year, the final will feature two teams that have never met before in any official European match. Man City will face Inter Milan in the final of the 2022/23 UEFA Champions League on Saturday 10 June in Istanbul.
Manchester City are the champions of England and winners of the FA Cup, having dominated the Premier League with their attractive and effective style of play. Led by the genius of Pep Guardiola, they have a squad full of world-class players who can execute his vision on the pitch. Simone Inzaghi and Inter are trying to leave their mark on European Football after 2010, and winning the trophy is the best way to do it.
The tactical analysis of the final will analyse the tactics that both teams will use based on three aspects: how Manchester City will try to break down Inter’s compactness; how Inter will try to exploit Manchester City’s weaknesses; and how the managers will adjust their strategies during the game.
The history of the two teams in the Champions League is quite different. Manchester City has only reached the final once before, in 2021, when they lost to Chelsea 1-0 with Kai Havertz’s goal.
On the other hand, Inter reached the final five times before, winning thrice (in 1964, 1965 and 2010) and losing twice (in 1967 and 1972). Inter this season defeated local rivals AC Milan 3-0 on aggregate in the semifinal to reach their first European final since 2010 when they won the competition as part of a historic treble under José Mourinho.
This will be the first official competitive meeting between Man City and Inter Milan in European Cups.
The final will be a clash of styles and philosophies. Manchester City will try to dominate possession and create chances with their intricate positional play style. Inter will try to defend compactly and hit on the counterattack with their pace and power, utilising Romelu Lukaku or Edin Džeko as a target man.
City reached the final by scoring 12 goals more than Inter (31 to 19), which is a huge number considering that they have played just 12 games. This is one goal on average more per game. On the other hand, Inter, with just 46.42% ball possession, focused on keeping the opponents away from their goal. The 1.36 xG against per game is a very flattering number, considering that Inter was forced to defend for most of the playing time. Also, the eight clean sheets in 12 games show their defensive stability. Inter is a team that during this year’s competition should have conceded 16 goals (16.26 xG against), but due to their top-flight goalkeeper André Onana, they have conceded only 10. Onana is at the top of the list for two very important metrics for the goalkeeper position: preventing goals (6.75 per game) and saves (46 in total).
City, on the other hand, managed to keep seven clean sheets, but this was based a lot on their ability to defend with the ball by having an average of 59.84% ball possession. Having a 2.36 xG per 90 shows that they can beat any team in all phases of a game.
The final will be very interesting because Inter, based on the following chart, can produce an attacking style of football that is more than enough to secure a win against any team. They are the fourth-best team in terms of goals conceded per 90 (0.83), fifth for cross accuracy (38.2%), and second in the number of crosses into the six-yard box (2.45).
This year in the Champions League, they have managed to lead in almost all statistical categories. They have reached the final without losing any games, with seven wins and five draws. They scored 31 goals and conceded only five in 12 games, which is a testament to their attacking quality while also contributing to their defensive security. They have qualified through the Champions League knockout stages, easily defeating RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich, and last year’s winners Real Madrid.
The FA Cup final did not bring any concerns to Guardiola. All the players who carried the team for the last few months are healthy, apart from Kyle Walker who is questionable. Against Manchester United, the Cityzens fielded their strongest team with the exception of Stefan Ortega instead of Ederson in goal.
Thus, for the Champions League final, Guardiola has no reason to change anything. Ederson will guard the goal, while Manuel Akanji, Rúben Dias, John Stones, and Kyle Walker will form a versatile defensive backline. The midfield trio will consist of Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne, and İlkay Gündoğan. Up front, Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva will be on the wings, with Erling Haaland playing as the central forward.
The aforementioned eleven players will most probably start the game with only one consideration for the position on the right wing. Due to the fact that Inter’s formation is 5-3-2 and their defensive compactness in the middle of the pitch, the game will most probably be driven to the sidelines. There, City will need to have players who are very capable in 1v1 situations, able to create goal-scoring opportunities for themselves or their teammates through individual actions. Grealish is ranked in the top five of the CL for progressive runs (5.68 per 90), the player with the most fouls won in the EPL and his ability to drive with the ball will be a decisive factor. On the other side, Silva has 2.84 dribbles per 90 with 45.9% success and 3.25 progressive runs, which is a very good average, but Riyad Mahrez is slightly better in a 1v1 situation with 3.94 per 90 (48.8% success). This is the only reasonable concern that may lead Guardiola to amend his starting line-up.
If we take into account Guardiola’s recent interviews and his words that he will not do any “overthinking” for this year, it is most likely that he will stick with the winning recipe of the last few games.
Take advantage of the flanks
The duels on the flanks will play a crucial role in determining the outcome for Manchester City in the big final. Particularly in the Champions League, Inter has adopted a defensive strategy that revolves around pushing their opponents toward the wings. In doing so, they attempt to disrupt the opposition’s flow of play by employing tactics such as shifting their defensive block and repositioning players to prevent numerical superiority or one-on-one situations on the flanks. The ultimate goal is to regain possession of the ball in the middle block and specifically on the wide lanes.
To counter this defensive plan, Manchester City will need to employ an effective strategy. One approach they can take is to keep their wingers positioned wide, close to the touchlines. By doing so, they will force Inter’s wing-backs and the entire back five to remain deep in their own half. This strategic move restricts Inter’s wing-backs from easily pushing forward to defend switches of play.
Man City can take advantage of this situation by swiftly switching the play from one side to the other, exploiting the gaps and spaces that will emerge on the weak side of Inter’s defensive setup. Inter’s midfield trio will struggle to shift quickly enough to provide assistance to their wing-back in defending against City’s wingers or wide midfielders. As a result, players such as Grealish, Silva, or Mahrez will have numerous opportunities to showcase their exceptional quality and make significant contributions to Manchester City’s offensive game plan.
Apart from the 1v1 situations, City can exploit spaces on the ball side. Like United, Inter is pressing high with a 1-2 formation and leaves the flanks to be marked by the midfielders. The additional option is for the wing-backs if it’s possible to push up.
In low block situations, that is easy because of the short distances, but in a medium or high defence, this is much more difficult and gaps are created. The moments for opponents against Inter to take advantage of spaces to the flanks are on switch plays in the middle third. Inter’s wing-backs may not have the time to push up to apply pressure on the opponent’s weak-side full-back. The wide wingers make it even more difficult because they challenge them if they decide to push forward or stay with them.
Below is another situation that may occur. The opponents are focused on pressing the ball and not allowing the switch of play, and they missed the movement of the wide full-back towards the inside channel. The backline cannot push up because the three City attackers are pinning them back. On such occasions, Walker and Akanji will find spaces on the inside where they can move to receive.
Creating spaces behind the front and midfield line
Guardiola, throughout his career, faced many teams who adopted a very compact or defensive medium block to stop his teams. Even back in the days when he was a player, he was forced to deal with defensive teams whose objective was to deny spaces in the centre and avoid passes between their lines. Fortunately for him, the great Johan Cruyff taught him several ways to overcome such situations.
Guardiola is renowned for transforming his midfielders and centre-backs into world-class players on the ball. David Alaba, Javi Martínez, Gerard Piqué, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta are a few notable examples. The same applies to Manchester City. Under his leadership, De Bruyne, Stones, Dias, Rodri, and Silva have become some of the best in their positions.
To become champions and formidable trophy winners, City had to overcome one of their biggest challenges: breaking down compact, medium, and low defensive blocks. They chose to address this issue by employing a positional play technique known as “la pausa” and by inviting pressure while circulating the ball along the back line. “La Pausa” is a player’s ability to slow down the game’s pace, take control of the ball, and assess the situation around them.
City’s defenders have the confidence to maintain possession, even by staying stationary without advancing, and waiting for the opponent to step forward to press them. By attacking the pressure from the opponent’s forward and midfield lines, spaces are created behind them that they can exploit.
Inter Milan has finished third in Serie A, securing a place in the 2023/24 Champions League. They had the second-best attack with 71 goals but were sixth for the best defence, conceding 42 goals. That was because, in the local competitions, Inter had the quality to dominate in many of their games. The team had an average of 55.7% compared to Europe’s game where they adopted a more defensive style of play with just 46.42%.
Inter managed to overcome some tough opponents in the Champions League knockout stages, beating Porto, Benfica, and Milan.
Simone Inzaghi has remained loyal to the 3-5-2 formation since the days of Antonio Conte. This system provides a solid defensive structure while allowing for fluidity in attack. Despite some personnel changes, key players like the top goal scorer with 28 goals and seven assists in all competitions Lautaro Martínez and Nicolò Barella have maintained their roles within the system.
In the semi-finals against Milan, Inzaghi used the same line-up in both legs and most probably, he will keep the same eleven for the final in Istanbul. Onana will be in goal. The back three were Matteo Darmian, Francesco Acerbi and Alessandro Bastoni. The two wing-backs will be the former PSV Eindhoven player Denzel Dumfries and Federico Dimarco. The midfield trio will be Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, and Barella. For the positions of the two centre-forwards, Martínez will be the one with Džeko and Lukaku to fight for the player next to him. If we take into consideration the games against Milan, Džeko will most probably be his partner.
The mixed zonal-pressing defence
Inter Milan’s defensive approach is based on their combative nature and a strong emphasis on team unity.
The team employs a mixed zonal-man-to-man pressing style that originates from a medium block. They demonstrate flexibility in adapting to the movements of the opposition while maintaining fixed positions for their front two and back three. The near-side central midfielder, often Mkhitaryan or Barella, tracks deeper opposition players or shadows their man toward the ball. The defensive midfielder assumes a reserved position to screen the opposition’s striker.
The players maintain their positions, hence the term “zonal marking,” but they apply intense pressure on anyone who enters their zone, making the term “man-oriented pressing” equally relevant.
The intriguing aspect of Inter’s pressing technique lies in the involvement of players who are near the ball carrier. As a result, their pressing is both intense and seamless. There are no rigid guidelines determining which opponent each player defends. Any player near the ball has the freedom to advance and apply pressure. The vacant space left behind is promptly covered by their teammates. This makes it exceedingly challenging for opposing teams to penetrate Inter’s defensive formation, particularly through the central areas.
In the following example, when play switches, Barella moves towards the deep centre-back position while the right wing-back Dumfries shifts to the left full-back position. However, it should be noted that the pressing duties of these players are not strictly assigned to them. The responsibility for defending in each area lies with the nearest player.
Because of the aforementioned reason, in the following scene, the left-back is being pressured by the side midfielder Barella, while Dumfries keeps an eye on the interior movement without possession. One of the fundamental defensive principles in Inzaghi’s philosophy with Inter is that there must always be pressure when the ball enters the middle third, especially within their own half.
This defensive behaviour aims to solve the problem that the specific formation creates which is the free spaces on the flanks. By alternating who is pressing the weak side’s full-back or winger in case of switches of play it makes, it difficult to avoid underloading situations and limits the 1v1s near their box by denying players with the ball the opportunity to drive forward.
The defensive fluidity also applies in situations when the opponents with vertical passes find players between their lines. The five-player backline gives the luxury for any defender to push forward and press the ball receiver before turning with the ball. In such cases, Çalhanoğlu or any other midfielder is ready to cover the gap and rebalance the backline. Any pass inside the defensive block is a pressing trigger for the nearest player.
The midfield three adopt an angled defence to stop near-sided attacks and force the opposition to switch play, where the far-sided central player is ready to intercept and launch a counterattack. This defensive strategy creates difficulties for opponents to switch play effectively. The wing-backs play a crucial role by amplifying pressure on their side of the field and dropping back when the opposition successfully switches play.
Fluid build-up and crossing opportunities
Inter will be faced with the challenging task of exploiting the weaknesses of Manchester City. Manchester City possesses a formidable defence that has significantly improved since Dias joined from Benfica. Dias has formed a strong partnership with John Stones at the heart of Manchester City’s defence, resulting in a record of 13 clean sheets in 38 league games. Additionally, they benefit from the presence of Rodri, their holding midfielder, who excels at disrupting the opposition’s play and distributing the ball.
To enhance their chances of winning the final, Inter must strive to maintain possession of the ball for as long as possible. This is crucial as it will limit the amount of time that City spends in possession. The most opportune moment to retain control of the ball is by initiating the build-up from the back through secure passes, rather than relying on long balls.
Onana, the goalkeeper, possesses exceptional skills in playing with his feet. In the Champions League this season, he has achieved 15.94 accurate short passes with a success rate of 98.5%, along with 9.21 long passes at an accuracy of 74.8%. In Serie A, his short passes exceed 20. During the build-up, whether in a stationary or dynamic state, when Onana has possession of the ball, the two wide centre-backs move to the sides while the central one assumes a role similar to that of a number ‘6’. The two wing-backs typically position themselves on the flanks to receive a pass as a secondary passing option.
Acerbi plays a crucial role in Inzaghi’s dynamic formation. He possesses the freedom to advance through the centre, converting the defensive trio into a duo while shifting from a lone holding midfielder to a pair. Acerbi’s astute decision-making allows him to identify the opportune moments for such transitions. Frequently, he positions himself centrally after distributing the ball to the central defenders, especially when Inter is facing intense pressure from the opposition. His clever movement without the ball forces an opponent to mark him closely, thereby opening up space for his teammates to move the ball around.
Another scenario that presents an opportunity to position oneself centrally arises when the ball is directed toward Inter’s goalkeeper. By occupying the centre, it opens up additional passing choices and establishes a 2-2-4-2 formation. This makes it challenging for opponents to push numerous players toward the front and pressurise all potential recipients of the ball. However, if they opt to pursue this approach, Inter is quick to resort to employing long passes to locate players positioned further up the field.
While Inter Milan prioritises defensive solidity, they are far from being a defensive side. They excel in possession-based play especially in Serie A utilising the strengths of their outside centre-backs, wing-backs, and central midfielders to dictate the tempo of the game. Bastoni and Barella often make forward runs to exploit spaces in the next zone.
The patient build-up very often brings the wing-backs into position for a cross. Dimarco has been exceptional in providing cleverness and assists from the left wing-back position, while Dumfries adds a direct attacking threat from the right wing. Inter completed 56% of the crosses from the left side. Dimarco is in the top 10 players with the most crosses in this year’s competition with the fifth-best crossing accuracy, 45%.
The Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan is set to be a clash of styles and philosophies. Manchester City will look to dominate possession and create chances through their positional play, while Inter will defend compactly and aim to hit on the counterattack with their pace and power.
The analysis highlights Pep Guardiola’s side’s superiority. Manchester City’s strategy will involve exploiting the flanks by keeping their wingers positioned wide, forcing Inter’s wing-backs to stay deep in their own half. They can then switch play from one side to the other, taking advantage of the gaps and spaces that will emerge on the weak side of Inter’s defence. City’s exceptional wingers like Grealish, Silva, or Mahrez will have lots of opportunities for 1v1 actions.
Inter Milan’s defensive approach combines a mixed zonal-man-to-man pressing style and a fluid build-up. This makes it challenging for opponents to penetrate Inter’s defensive formation, especially through the central areas. Their fluid build-up will help them to exploit crossing opportunities and launch counterattacks.
Both teams have their strengths and tactical approaches, making the final an intriguing battle. It will ultimately come down to how well each team executes its game plan and adjusts its strategies during the match.