“You have to win the Champions League to be considered one of the really good teams, and we did,” said a weary Pep Guardiola after finally winning the Champions League with Manchester City.
“Suffering, we can’t expect differently because Inter is an exceptional team – the physicality and the styles they do. But sometimes you need that kind of luck that we didn’t have in the past against Tottenham (and in) other matches. Today we have it.”
Inter had a number of very close chances. Federico Dimarco’s header hit the crossbar before Romelu Lukaku’s header was blocked again, then the Belgian striker hit a free header towards Ederson instead of putting it into the net just two minutes earlier. Lautaro Martinez could also have changed the whole story had he capitalized on a Manuel Akanji mistake early in the second half.
It would have been a perfect example of how Inter Milan’s organization in midfield created problems for City’s game on the ball. Martínez’s chance arose from Marcelo Brozovic advancing to put pressure on Rodri, before Akanji thought Ederson would get the win.
Things could have been different, but some luck was required. And to be fair, the city owed some.
Their game on the ball was not the most fluid, especially in the final third. And when Inter was trying to capture all parts of the diamond midfield, City players did not play the dangerous pass to John Stones free as frequently as it should.
However, it was their off-the-ball game that once again shone through – a recurring theme throughout the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League. It was Ederson, Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake, Stones, Akanji and, to a lesser extent, Rodri who made the ascent to Istanbul.
The difference between the City side and the former, as Guardiola explains, is the four “right” defenders behind Rodri. “I think we defend a little bit better in the penalty area – four defenders, adequate defenders,” he told BT Sport after the match. “Even when we made a mistake, I had the feeling that we were more solid.”
That was also his opinion last week when asked if this City team was the best for him. “I’m not saying a team with 100 points was worse than this,” Guardiola said. “Maybe we’re more solid, featuring all the defenders. Maybe we didn’t have that in the past.”
Looking back on the knockout stages, these four fit defenders alongside Rodri were crucial to City conceding just three goals in seven games. Their dominance in duels was complemented by City’s high pressing in the second leg against RB Leipzig, where solid defending from the penalty area prevented Bayern from getting back into the game at the Etihad before Guardiola changed his pressing scheme in the second half, and that was it. A back four performance derailed Bayern at the Allianz Arena where Thomas Tuchel’s side were clearly the better team.
Kyle Walker then restricted Vinicius Jr. in the first leg of the semi-final against Real Madrid, helped by Dias leading the defense to the penalty area and Rodri being like an octopus in midfield in a match where City dominated only the first 25 minutes. “I learned this season when you play against Bukayo Saka, Vinicius Junior, Gabriel Martinelli or Mohamed Salah, you need adequate defenders to win individual matches,” Guardiola said a few weeks later.
In the second leg against Madrid, proper defenders were once again important. Their formidable one-on-one ability has influenced City’s pressing scheme, meaning they can take on Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo in defence, with Akanji positioning himself between Dani Carvajal and the rest of City’s defence. This enabled the Swiss defender to jump if the ball was played to Carvajal or drop it to contest the second ball if Real Madrid went too far.
With their abilities in duels, defending in transitional situations and winning second balls, the fit defenders for City as well as Rodri have guided Guardiola’s side to the Champions League final.
Against Inter it was more of the same. Strong performances from Dias and Akanji complemented Ederson’s rescue, and the pair were comfortable enough to play in a two-on-two scenario against Edin Dzeko and Martinez helped City with the pressure plan.
By standard, City’s initial shape of the ball was 4-4-2/4-2-4…
… Their main idea was to prevent Inter from communicating with their players in the middle of the field.
With Inter going three defences, Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish (yellow) rotated them from the outside in to pressure Alessandro Bastoni and Matteo Darmian, while blocking the passing lane at the Inter full-back.
Behind them, Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland (in blue) fell to cover Brozović and Hakan Calhanoglu, allowing Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan (white) to cover the middle of the pitch with the Germans watching Nicolo Barella’s movement.
Where Simone Inzaghi’s side built a four-legged defense with Francesco Acerbe pushing into midfield, City maintained a similar approach. Bernardo and Grealish (in yellow) focused on pressing from the outside in, Haaland and De Bruyne (in blue) covered Akerbe and Brozovic, while Rodri and Gundogan (in white) had their eyes on Calhanoglu and Barella.
Because of this pressing approach, Inter’s possession game was stifled. Here’s an example of how it works: With Bastoni on the ball and Acerbi moving up, Bernardo (yellow) presses Inter’s left-back from a corner that blocks the pass lane to Dimarco.
Meanwhile, De Bruyne marks Acerbi and Haaland covers Brozovic (blue) while Rodri and Gundogan (white) mark Calhanoglu and Barella. Bastoni turns the play towards Darmian on the other side, and Grealish (yellow) pounces…
…forcing the Italian defender into a quick pass towards Barella, which Gundogan was able to intercept.
Akanji and Dias were key players in City’s pressure plan. Andre Onana’s ability to play the ball, and match forwards for Inter, theoretically means the goalkeeper can find Martinez and Dzeko directly, but this is where City’s ‘adequate’ defenders come in.
They were comfortable having one-on-one duels against Inter strikers, and when Denzel Dumfries pushed forward, Aki picked him up.
In another example, Onana went too far towards Martinez and Dzeko…
…but Dias wins the aerial duel and heads the ball towards Aki.
A lot of variables factored into City winning the Champions League for the first time and thus completing a historic treble. But the decision to stick to the right four defenders and the different pressing patterns used gave them an added advantage in the knockout stages.
“I think now is a big step (for this team),” Guardiola told CBS Sports after winning the championship for the third time.
“Now we enjoy defending.”
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