UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse City's narrow final victory against Inter and consider how Pep Guardiola's side had to adapt to being unable to play their usual free-flowing game.
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Manchester City's UEFA Champions League final triumph in Istanbul was the product less of their trademark flowing attacking football than of some of the other virtues found in Pep Guardiola's history-making team.
In this article brought to you by FedEx, UEFA's Technical Observer Panel assess the key tactical features of an intriguing contest against Inter, shining a light on both sides' pressing strategies as well as the roles played by several of Saturday night's protagonists: matchwinner Rodri, City substitute Phil Foden and Inter goalkeeper André Onana.
1-0: Rodri (68)
It is typical of Rodri that one minute and 14 seconds before his winning goal, he should be the man who intercepted, with his head, an Inter clearance in the direction of Romelu Lukaku. Cue the spell of possession which brought his match-winning (and Treble-sealing) right-foot strike.
The immediate build-up involved Manuel Akanji carrying the ball towards the Inter box and feeding Bernardo Silva, breaking into the area. As the UEFA match observer remarked, where earlier in this possession sequence the City centre-back had Lautaro Martínez tight to him, he was now unhindered by the Argentinian. This led to Alessandro Bastoni stepping out to challenge which, in turn, opened up the space for Silva to step into behind the Inter centre-back. As the match observer added: "You see the movement of Silva. He is waiting till Bastoni goes out."
Now free on the right of the box, Bernardo cut the ball back towards the penalty spot where Rodri, racing forward from deep, arrived to sidefoot a first-time shot inside the near post. "My first thought was to hit it hard and high," he said. "But seeing the number of players there, I decided to place it."
Player of the Match: Rodri (Man City)
The 26-year-old was named not just the Player of the Match but the UEFA Champions League Player of the Season after a campaign in which he had the most touches (1,120), completed the most passes (910), and also produced the most ball recoveries (105).
Speaking after the final, Rodri asserted that he "wasn't good in the first half" and this was the result of an Inter gameplan that left him shackled by a man-marker (more in the Features section below). However, he still left a big mark on proceedings. He made more passes into the attacking third than any other player in the final (ten) and was also first-ranked for interceptions (three), while only Ιlkay Gündoğan and Marcelo Brozović registered more than his nine recoveries (with ten apiece). The tall Spaniard made his presence felt in the air too, winning three of four aerial duels. And then, of course, there was his winning goal.
City's trademark formation in possession during the competition's knockout stage has been a 1-3-2-4-1 in which John Stones (5) steps out of the back line to join Rodri (16) in trying to build the play.
What was interesting on Saturday was their midfield diamond shape which featured Rodri at the base, Stones (5) and Kevin De Bruyne (17) on the right and left respectively, and Gündoğan (8) at the top. That changed with De Bruyne's withdrawal through injury, at which point substitute Foden became the player to operate behind Erling Haaland (9) and Gündoğan shifted to the left.
Guardiola had omitted from his starting XI Kyle Walker, the right-back who had played such a significant role in marking Real Madrid's Vinícius Júnior in the semi-final. Instead he selected a back three of Akanji (25), Rúben Dias (3) and Nathan Aké (6) with Stones lending support on the right in a hybrid full-back/midfield role. This meant when City dropped into a low block, they had four natural centre-backs in their back line – an illustration of the more pragmatic approach seen from Guardiola at times this term.
The three-time winners set up in their usual 1-3-5-2 formation. As we will elaborate below, however, their centre-backs on the right and left side, Matteo Darmian (36) and Bastoni (95) respectively, had an important job to do by jumping into the No10 positions to engage with City's playmakers.
Anchoring the Inter midfield three was captain Brozović (77), the man who had most touches (76) for the Italian team, attempted the most passes (56, with a success rate of 89.3%), and made twice as many recoveries (ten) as the next-best player in that category for the Nerazzurri, Hakan Çalhanoglu (20).
Inter's back three out of possession
A key feature of the final was Inter's bravery out of possession and this is the focus of the video above. Against the tournament's top scorers, Simone Inzaghi's side took a bold approach whereby the centre-backs were tasked with going up the pitch to put the likes of Stones, De Bruyne and Gündoğan under pressure.
In the first clip we see first Darmian go all the way into the City half to press De Bruyne before Bastoni does likewise with Stones on the Inter left. This ensures that Inter's midfielders are free to focus elsewhere, notably with Brozović shadowing Rodri centrally. As the match observer explained: "They had players in clear man-marking roles and other players who had to jump and these were the two centre-halves."
In the second clip, we see Bastoni again step into the City half to close down Stones; then Darmian, anticipating a potential ball to De Bruyne down the City left, gets tight to the Belgian once more. The match observer said it was a "surprise" ploy and a "brave" one as the middle centre-back, Francesco Acerbi, was often left alone against Haaland, the tournament's top scorer. "They were not afraid to play one against one," added the observer.
Inter's approach made it difficult for City to create clear openings. In the final third, their pass completion ratio was 77.8%, lower than their season average of 86.4%. Moreover, their total of seven shots – half of Inter's total – was their joint-lowest of the season and only against Borussia Dortmund at home and Real Madrid away did Guardiola's men record a lower xG than the 0.99 they posted on Saturday (by comparison, Inter's xG was 1.68). As Guardiola reflected at the finish: "It is very difficult to attack Inter with this system of 5-3-2, it is very tricky."
Inter's marking in midfield
As already mentioned, with Inter's centre-backs assigned a pressing brief, their midfield trio could focus on other tasks – not least on trying to limit the impact of Rodri. "They always had one midfielder jumping on Rodri," said the match observer. Guardiola himself admitted afterwards: "We didn't expect Çalhanoglu jammed to Rodri."
In the video sequence above, we see a vigilant Brozović in the vicinity of Rodri, the Croatian keeping close to the City midfielder as his team-mates work the ball back to Ederson. The goalkeeper, rather than look to Rodri, plays a longer ball to Stones instead.
Rodri ended the final having completed more passes than any player (61 of 66 attempted) yet – to put Inter's efforts into context – this was his third-lowest number of completed passes in a Champions League match this season in which he had played the full 90 minutes. Only in both legs of the quarter-final against Bayern did City's metronome manage fewer. And, for the record, only in those two matches did the champions have less possession than the 55.4% they recorded in Istanbul.
City wingers lead press
The third feature of Saturday's game highlighted by the UEFA Technical Observer Panel was City's pressing game. "In the past you see City pressing a lot but now they stay in a high mid-block, waiting for the right moments," said the match observer, pointing out that when City did press high, it was the two wide attackers, Grealish and Bernardo Silva, who led the press, looking to force the ball to the sides or long. Within a 1-4-2-4 shape, the central attackers focused on screening the space in front of the Inter holding midfielder.
We see this in the first clip of the video above as Brozović finds himself flanked by Haaland and De Bruyne as Inter build from the back. Bernardo is the player who steps up into the Inter box to press Bastoni and he does the same in the second clip too, before Grealish closes down Darmian on the other side as De Bruyne and Haaland shut down the space around Brozović once more.
This was a tactic that City had previously used to good effect in the second half of their quarter-final home win over Bayern München. The observer added: "They did not press high but more mid-to-high, and when they did it was the wide players jumping as against Bayern."
Foden's impact off the bench
City suffered a setback in the 36th minute of the final when a hamstring injury prompted the departure of De Bruyne, source of six goal assists en route to this final. Yet his replacement, Foden, brought his own qualities to bear on a game where space was at a premium.
"Foden is different, Foden is direct," said the match observer, noting the Mancunian's ability to evade opponents in tight spaces – something evident in the video above. In the first clip we see him scan the space before the ball comes to him, meaning he is aware of the position of Federico Dimarco and able to anticipate the defender's movement and escape him with a lovely, light-footed turn before carrying the ball into the box and unleashing a low shot.
As the Technical Observer Panel reflected, this was one of the few pieces of individual attacking brilliance that City conjured on an evening when they had to win the hard way.
In his time on the field, Foden completed more crosses from open play (two) than any other City player and he was involved in the move for the goal too, as seen in the second clip above where he drifts in search of a pocket of space before eventually picking up the ball in the Inter box and shepherding it away from a couple of opponents before feeding Akanji for the forward surge that leads to the goal.
Onana's passing from deep
"They put the incredible Onana to play in the positions of a holding midfielder." These were Guardiola's words in the press conference about the opposition goalkeeper, whose excellence with the ball at his feet stood out in Inter's late search for an equaliser.
As noted by the Technical Observer Panel, in an era when goalkeepers are increasingly involved in making the play, Onana's efforts embodied that trend on a night he displayed the passing range of a holding midfielder.
The first clip of the video above shows him carry the ball outside his box and then take out six City players with a forward ball into the opposition half to Martínez, who supplies Lukaku for a shot on goal. "An amazing pass" was the verdict of the match observer. The Cameroonian produced another excellent pass in the second clip – a measured ball along the ground to the feet of Lukaku, who turns and feeds substitute Henrikh Mkhitaryan in another dangerous late attack.
This was one of five matches in this European campaign in which Onana completed 30 or more passes. And with 32 of his 44 attempted passes completed, he ranked sixth among his Inter colleagues for successful passes on Saturday night.
Incidentally, he can use his hands too: the Inter keeper ranks first among goalkeepers in this season's competition in the 'goals prevented' category with 7.84 – two ahead of Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois (5.85).
Coach and player assessments
Pep Guardiola, Man City coach: "In the first half we had trouble reading the free man in midfield. I said to Rodri [at half-time]: 'Relax, you've been the best midfielder in Europe by some distance. Don't rush it – read where the free man is.'
"Today we felt the pressure but it is normal… I know how difficult it is [to win for the first time]. You have to be strong [in the mind] and accept you are going to suffer.
"The second half was a little bit better, except I'd say for the last ten minutes. The turning point [for Inter's late charge] was the excellent action from Phil. He was a little bit anxious to finish this action – like we were during the game. It is completely understandable that the players felt it because they had it there – 'We want to win the Champions League' – and when it happens, sometimes you aren't yourself and that's why we played not at our level."
Simone Inzaghi, Inter coach: "We played on a par with a very strong team. We were very good in both phases. We gave away very little – I remember there was one chance for Foden but they didn't have clear chances. We would have deserved to take the game to extra time.
"This evening we showed why we were in the final. We were aggressive, organised, determined. We played the game we had to play in a final."
Rodri, City midfielder and Player of the Match: "At the end they had chances. We didn't have a lot of chances. It was a very tactical game. We didn't play well in the first half but we switched on in the second half."