From Istanbul With Love: A Tactical Analysis of the Champions League Final

In the aftermath of a hard-fought final where Manchester City emerged victorious, Pep Guardiola now stands as a revered figure, hailed as a deity in the blue half of Manchester. Despite encountering numerous battles against Inter’s relentless challenges, City showcased their mettle, adapting their tactics to overcome the Italian giants in a strategic showdown. Recognizing Inter’s objective of limiting central progression, Guardiola made a crucial adjustment to City’s structure. Guardiola implemented a 3-4-3 formation with Rodri as the lone pivot.


John Stones assumed the role of a box-to-box midfielder on the right flank, while Kevin De Bruyne operated on the left. Ilkay Gundogan occupied the central position within the diamond midfield of the 3-4-3 setup. The strategic rationale behind this tactical adjustment was to provide De Bruyne and Stones with wider areas to receive the ball, allowing them to bypass the congested central zones. However, Hakan Cahanoglu and Nicolo Barella from Inter displayed commendable pressing abilities, effectively closing down City’s midfielders in the wider channels of the diamond.


To further compound City’s challenges in build-up play, Lautaro Martinez marked Manuel Akanji, Edin Dzeko pressed Ruben Dias, and Barella was tasked with pressuring Nathan Ake from midfield, dropping back into midfield when necessary. This tactical approach implemented by Inter made City uncomfortable in possession, hindering their ability to progress the ball into midfield. Naturally, Barella’s movements to press Ake created exploitable spaces, but similar to his defending against AC Milan’s Brahim Diaz in the semis, Matteo Darmian effectively stepped out from central defense to close down Gundogan and De Bruyne.


City aimed to exploit the gaps in Inter’s defensive structure created when Darmian stepped out by utilizing Phil Foden’s well-timed runs. In response, Simone Inzaghi’s team made adjustments, with Barella dropping deeper to track Gundogan, allowing Darmian to maintain a central defensive position. Consequently, Inter’s defense transformed into a back five, enabling Denzel Dumfries and Federico Dimarco, the wing-backs, to focus effectively on neutralizing Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva. The central defenders were then able to concentrate on dealing with any central threats that emerged.


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Nevertheless, City occasionally found opportunities to break through when Dzeko failed to swiftly close down Ake. Ake, in such instances, moved wide, creating a 2v1 situation against Barella with Gundogan. This prompted Inter’s midfield to shift across, and the Dutchman could then locate Rodri, the pivot, who subsequently found Stones in space on the right to sustain the attack.


When Inter had possession, they showcased their prowess on the ball. Alessandro Bastoni and Darmian positioned themselves just outside the box, while Francesco Acerbi stayed in the box alongside goalkeeper Andre Onana. The wing-backs, Dimarco and Denzel Dumfries, positioned themselves wide toward the touchline. Marcelo Brozovic and Cahanoglu formed a double pivot in midfield, with Brozovic occasionally taking on an additional attacking role.


City attempted to disrupt Inter’s build-up play through an organized pressing structure. Erling Haaland and Foden applied pressure on Cahanoglu and Brozovic, respectively, aiming to disrupt their passing options and force turnovers. Grealish pressed Darmian while keeping Dumfries within his cover shadow. Similarly, Bernardo Silva pressed Bastoni, strategically blocking passing lanes to Dimarco. When Onana distributed the ball to Acerbi, it triggered Silva’s proactive pressing on Acerbi, preventing a pass to Dimarco.


However, Onana’s impressive passing ability allowed Inter to bypass City’s pressing at times, finding Dumfries and Dimarco with diagonal passes. With Brozovic dropping wide on the right to combine with Dumfries, Inter generated numerical superiority against Ake, thereby maintaining their attacking momentum. As a result, the City team had to shift across to nullify this. Inter demonstrated exquisite ball control and fluidity in their possession game. Bastoni and Darmian assumed positions just outside the box, occupying the left and right channels respectively. Acerbi positioned himself in the box alongside goalkeeper Andre Onana.


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The wing-backs, Dimarco and Dumfries, positioned wide towards the touchline, stretching the opposition’s defensive shape. In the midfield, Brozovic and Cahanogolu formed a double pivot, offering passing options and stability. Brozovic, displaying an attacking inclination, sought to contribute as an additional attacker.


Manchester City aimed to disrupt Inter’s build-up play through a well-structured pressing scheme. Haaland and Foden were assigned the task of applying pressure on Cahanogolu and Brozovic, respectively, in order to cut off passing lanes and force turnovers. Grealish was responsible for pressing Darmian while also positioning himself strategically to nullify Dumfries’ influence within his cover shadow.


On the other flank, Bernardo Silva pressed Bastoni, utilizing his cover shadow to effectively block passing options towards Dimarco. Notably, when Onana distributed the ball to Acerbi, it triggered Silva’s proactive pressing, preventing a pass to Dimarco. However, Inter’s ability to bypass City’s pressing and exploit spaces was facilitated by Onana’s exceptional passing skills. With well-executed diagonal passes, Inter managed to find Dumfries and Dimarco in advanced positions.


Brozovic’s tendency to drop wide on the right and combine with Dumfries further enabled Inter to create numerical superiority against Ake, sustaining their attacking momentum. Consequently, City’s defensive structure had to shift across to negate this numerical advantage. Nonetheless, this adjustment left spaces unattended on the opposite side, providing opportunities for Dimarco to receive the ball and influence proceedings in various areas of the pitch, as Silva was occupied with Bastoni.


Inter Milan showcased a remarkable performance throughout the match. However, there were instances where their strikers failed to impede the progressive runs of Ake and Akanji, allowing the ball to advance into dangerous areas. It was on one such occasion that Akanji took the initiative to carry the ball forward. With Inter’s midfield unable to shift across in time, Bastoni was compelled to step higher, unintentionally creating space for Bernardo Silva to exploit. Silva intelligently recognized this opportunity and made a penetrating run into the vacated area.


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In response, the Inter midfield reacted by attempting to cover the advancing runners, which inadvertently created space for Rodri to exploit. Rodri astutely recognized the opening and made a well-timed run into the designated space. Silva, having received the ball, executed a precise cut-back pass to Rodri, who expertly struck the ball into the back of the net, ultimately resulting in a goal.


As the final whistle blew, signaling Manchester City’s triumph in the UEFA Champions League, the culmination of years of relentless effort and unwavering determination became apparent. Pep Guardiola, the revered figure in the blue half of Manchester, had faced his fair share of disappointments on this grand stage. The memory of the heartbreak in the 2021 final against Chelsea, followed by the agonizing defeat to Real Madrid in 2022, and the quarter-final loss to Tottenham Hotspur in 2019, had fueled his desire to conquer Europe.


But Guardiola’s persistence and unwavering belief in his team paid off. His meticulous planning and tactical adjustments throughout the tournament showcased his astute footballing mind. The treble of the Premier League, FA Cup, and now the Champions League, achieved by Manchester City, drew comparisons to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United in 1999. Guardiola had etched his name among the greats, leaving an indelible mark on the footballing world.


However, amidst the celebrations, there was also a sense of admiration for Simone Inzaghi and his Inter Milan team. Despite falling short in the final, they displayed exceptional skill, determination, and spirit throughout their Champions League campaign. Inzaghi can take pride in the way his team battled against formidable opponents, defying expectations and proving their mettle on the European stage.


Just as Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United inspired generations with their treble-winning heroics, Guardiola’s Manchester City has now become the epitome of resilience and success. The journey to ultimate immortality is one filled with twists and turns, a path fraught with uncertainty. As we traverse these corridors of destiny, who can say what lies beyond? Will there be more doors to be passed and more challenges to be faced? Only time, that elusive master, holds the answers.


By: Tobi Peter / @keepIT _tactical

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Adam Davy – PA Images