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Tactical Analysis: Manchester City finally end their Champions League duck on an off-day

It was time for the big one. The last worldwide headline-grabbing fixture of the 2022/23 club football season saw Manchester City and Inter Milan face off in Istanbul with the Champions League trophy on the line.

After a tense 90 minutes, it was Man City who finally got their hands on the coveted trophy for the first time ever, having come away with a narrow 1-0 win in a match that really could have gone either way.

From a tactical point of view, this was an interesting battle between two teams that slightly deviated from their usual set-ups, although not many expected that when the line-ups were announced.

Pep Guardiola’s perceived tendency to overthink in big games is a popular narrative, but he sprung no surprises here and named an entirely predictable starting XI.

Inter clearly had a set first-choice team this season, so they used all available players for that.

As that line-up graphic shows, though, Guardiola had something up his sleeve again. Instead of operating in their usual 3-2-2-3 shape in possession, Man City moved to a 3-1-3-3/3-1-5-1 of sorts with John Stones pushing up on the right to go well beyond Rodri and alongside the other two midfielders.

For their part, Inter also came up with a slightly tweaked defensive set-up. As opposed to their usual 5-3-2 block, they used something of a 5-1-3-1/3-3-3-1 with Lautaro Martínez moving across on the left to keep an eye on Manuel Akanji, Nicolò Barella stepping up on the right to do so to Nathan Aké and Hakan Çalhanoğlu stepping up to be close to Rodri in the middle.

Marcelo Brozović started close to City’s central advanced midfielder, while someone from the back line stepped up on the ball side to prevent City’s number eight from receiving in a dangerous position between the lines.

In theory, you could see what Guardiola was trying to do here. In any situation – such as the one above – City always had one free advanced midfielder -even if on the far side – so they always had avenues to play through the Inter block.

Unfortunately for them, they could only reach this free midfielder on a select few occasions. Inter’s defending obviously deserves some credit for that, but City had a few shortcomings too.

Of course, we have to acknowledge the occasion and the nerves that come with it which certainly seemed to affect the performances of some of City’s players.

That perhaps only adds to the bigger point, which is Guardiola’s decision to tweak his system for this match. Yes, it made sense from a purely theoretical point of view, but it was the execution that let City down.

Having to acclimatise to a slightly new system on such a massive occasion certainly cannot be easy for the players, so perhaps City should have stuck to their usual game.

Either way, Man City unsurprisingly dominated possession and kept well over 60% of the ball in the first half, so even though they were not threatening their opponents a lot and only managed four shots in the period, they weren’t threatened a lot themselves either by virtue of having the ball.

Inter did not pose much of a counter-attacking threat, but they did manage to match City’s shot-count thanks to how they built up.

Out of possession, the Premier League champions adopted their usual 4-2-4 high press that previously suffocated Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in this competition.

Everyone had a very tough time trying to play out from the back against this pressing system, but Inter used a straightforward solution: they simply did not try to play out from the back.

They only circulated a couple of short passes around the back to bait the press before immediately going aerial over the front line and into or even beyond their midfield.

Besides the front two, Denzel Dumfries started very high up and was sometimes used as a target for such long balls, after which Barella and Çalhanoğlu tried to sweep up the second balls.

Without question, though, the key player for Inter in possession was their goalkeeper, who was completely unfazed by the opposition pressure and kept spraying pinpoint passes past them.

The Italians were able to get into some promising positions after such situations at times, and André Onana deserves a lot of credit for it.

Ultimately, the Champions League was decided by a couple of moments in either penalty area. Man City took the lead in the 68th minute when a deflected cut-back fell to Rodri, who thrashed the ball home.

Just moments later, Inter could have equalised when Dimarco headed onto the crossbar and then had his rebound blocked by Romelu Lukaku of all people.

The Belgian international could have grabbed the headlines in the 88th minute when the ball travelled across the six-yard box towards him, but his glancing header stayed out after hitting Ederson from point-blank range.

The Brazilian goalkeeper also made a stoppage-time save from a flicked header after a corner, earning the clean sheet that won his side the Champions League.

Inter’s search for a late equaliser meant that they ended the match with a significantly greater xG tally, but throughout the even game state, there was little to pick between the two sides.

In that sense, this was one of Man City’s worst performances in a high-stakes match this season, but they will not care. The ball bounced and deflected in a manner that favoured them in the end, and that is all that matters in the history books.

Even after spending unimaginable amounts of wealth and assembling a real super-team to get in contention, the final key to success in the Champions League remains something money cannot buy — a stroke of good luck.

Stats and images courtesy Wyscout, and WhoScored and FotMob via Opta.

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