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Don’t write off Inter Milan just yet.

“After the (group stage) draw, there was some disappointment,” said head coach Simone Inzaghi after the Champions League semi-final second leg against AC Milan. “We didn’t get very lucky.”

Inter were grouped with Barcelona and Bayern Munich but won three of six group-stage games to finish second on 10 points. They only lost to Bayern (who themselves had a perfect group stage).

Porto, Benfica and Milan might have looked a straightforward route to the final, but Inter earned that with their group stage success.

“Whoever we end up with (in the final), we will be unlucky,” added Inzaghi after the Milan second leg. “Because they (Real Madrid and Manchester City) are two really great teams with incredible quality.”

Inzaghi should probably reference luck less — Inter’s cup success under him has been anything but fortuitous. They are in their first Champions League final since 2010, when Jose Mourinho was manager. Win it and they will have replicated Mourinho’s infamous Manchester United ‘treble’: domestic cup (Italian Cup), domestic super cup (Supercoppa) and a European trophy.

Inter won the cup double (Supercoppa and Italian Cup) again this season, retaining both titles from last season, beating Milan and Juventus in the semi-finals and finals.

And here’s why you shouldn’t write Inter off:

  • An elite cup record under Inzaghi
  • A 3-5-2 formation, which defends as a 5-3-2
  • Frequent crosses and wide combination play, 4-3-3 attack shape
  • Match-winning individuals in both boxes

Elite cup record

The cliche is that form books go out of the window in finals. If that was/is true and they are effectively coin flips, there is just a six per cent chance that a team wins four consecutively. Inter have done that under Inzaghi. Winning five sits at just a three per cent chance.

In fact, Inter have won 21 of Inzaghi’s 32 cup games in charge, losing just five. They have scored 52 goals (1.6 per game) and conceded just 25 (0.78 per game), keeping 17 clean sheets. That win rate (65.6 per cent) is superior to their Serie A form under Inzaghi (63.2 per cent), but also City’s Champions League win rate under Guardiola (63.5 per cent).

The data models rate Inter as significant underdogs. Both Opta and FiveThirtyEight have City’s win probability at around 75 per cent. “It’s normal that when you go to face City you start (as) underdogs, but football is always open,” said Inzaghi.

The 3-5-2 and 5-3-2

Having a solid tactical base is a knockout football fundamental, though Inzaghi has been criticised for how religiously he plays a 3-5-2, particularly in Serie A. “There were the right ingredients in the players to play that way (3-5-2) and we obtained some big results,” he said in early March.

Inter are comfortable defending for long periods of time, having less than 45 per cent possession in nine of their 12 Champions League games this season. They drop the wing-backs (yellow dots) deeper to make a flat back five, congesting central areas, with three central midfielders to screen and press wide from a compact shape.

City’s attacking strength, when a defender steps into midfield, has been creating a front five by pushing the two No 10s forward (with the wingers and No 9). Inter’s back five can match this man-for-man and they can double or triple up on Haaland in the box. Inter may struggle to press and make high turnovers, but City will not get their usual central midfield overloads.

Real Madrid’s issues in the semi-final against City were systemic from playing a back four. It forced the central midfielders to drop into a 6-3-1 to defend City’s two No 10s (yellow dots), which pinned Madrid deep and prevented them from pressing. Inter’s back-five shape should prevent that from happening.

Inter kept clean sheets in five of their six knockout games en route to the final and their eight clean sheets overall are the most in the Champions League this season. With three tall centre-backs, typically Alessandro Bastoni (6ft 3in; 190cm), Francesco Acerbi (6ft 4in) and Matteo Darmian (6ft), they can defend crosses into the box, making the second-most clearances per game (22) of any Champions League team.

“At the start of the season, we tried to play the high press — which is not as big a strength,” Romelu Lukaku told CBS after the semi-final second leg. “In this league, defence wins the championship, so at one point the manager (Inzaghi) has just said, ‘Let’s go back to our strengths from before, let’s just be compact and go from there and go forward as fast as possible’.”

Crosses, wing-backs and attacking as a 4-3-3

Inter (230) have attempted the second most crosses in the Champions League this season, ranking only joint-15th for through balls attempted (10, with Benfica). They get numbers forward, with the wing-backs advancing, a strike partnership of Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez, plus late-running central midfielders like Nicolo Barella.

Inter’s left side is their danger zone. Left wing-back Federico Dimarco provides a creative outlet, making forward runs from deep positions, whereas right wing-back Denzel Dumfries positions higher in build-up and attacks the back post.

Dimarco set up Inter’s second in the semi-final first leg, running in behind right-back Davide Calabria and pulling it back for the late-arriving Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

It is five-v-five in the final third, with Milan’s defenders pinned as Mkhitaryan runs through to score.

There were similar left-sided combinations for the first two goals in a 4-0 home group-stage win over Viktoria Plzen, and against Benfica in the round of 16.

For the second goal in the return leg against Benfica, Dimarco and Mkhitaryan combined once more, though this time the wing-back underlapped to provide a cutback.

Inter again have four attacking the cross. Not only do they have numbers, but they also have players making different runs. Here, Dumfries is locking off the back post, Barella has held his run for a pull-back, Dzeko is lurking deeper and goalscorer Lautaro attacks between the posts.

Another source of left-sided creativity has been centre-back Bastoni stepping forward and delivering crosses from deep. He has assisted Barella twice in the Champions League, away to Barcelona in the group stages and away to Benfica in the round of 16.

Against Milan, Inter rotated their 3-5-2 to attack in a 4-3-3, pushing Dumfries on and exploiting Milan’s central midfield man-marking to play direct into Dzeko and Lautaro. Afterwards, Inzaghi said Inter “showed strength, determination, aggression, concentration, they were wonderful”.

Similarly, against Fiorentina’s man-for-man press, centre-back Acerbi stepped into midfield and Inter rotated their central midfielders (yellow dots) to push Dumfries forward.

Acerbi had positioned himself similarly at times in the first leg of the semi-final against Milan, pinning No 9 Giroud to restrict Milan’s press.

City have pressed out of a 4-4-2 in the Champions League this season, at times pushing the wingers high (4-2-4) to press from out-to-in and force teams long, which is less problematic for Inter given Dzeko and Lautaro’s hold-up abilities.

Guardiola’s side have height in their back-line, but if they attack in their typical 3-2-4-1 shape — where John Stones moves into midfield in possession — then they will leave space out wide for Inter to exploit in transition.

Match-winners in both boxes

“It’s both boxes in the Champions League, defend well and be efficient in the opponent’s area,” said Manchester City’s Kyle Walker in August 2020, a summer where City were knocked out of the Champions League (single leg) quarter-final by Lyon.

City might be, fairly inarguably, Europe’s best between the boxes, but Inter showed their strength at both ends of the pitch in their recent Coppa Italia final against Fiorentina. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, back-up to Andre Onana, made five saves, all from shots inside the box, while captain Lautaro scored twice from two shots in eight first-half minutes to recover from 1-0 down.

Over the past three seasons, Lautaro has scored in three cup finals and four semi-finals, across the Italian Cup, Supercoppa, Champions League and Europa League — his goals won four of those games. His pair against Fiorentina were his 100th and 101st Inter goals.

In the Champions League, goalkeeper Andre Onana has prevented almost eight additional goals based on the quality of shots faced – the best in the competition.

Inter’s team has been tactically consistent with a defined spine. There are seven ‘core’ Inter players, accumulating over 75 per cent of European minutes: Onana, Bastoni, Lautaro, Barella, Mkhitaryan, Acerbi and Dumfries.

Five Inter players have scored multiple goals (Dzeko, Lautaro, Lukaku, Barella, Mkhitaryan), which is as many as Manchester City despite Guardiola’s side scoring 11 more goals overall.

Lukaku is yet to start a Champions League game this season, with injuries plaguing him earlier in the campaign and significantly affecting his World Cup. He has recovered, scoring 12 and assisting six following that tournament, importantly offering Inzaghi a different style of No 9 to pair with Lautaro.

“Romelu likes to play more between the opposition defenders to turn them, while I like to seek the space between the lines,” said Lautaro when asked about the difference between Lukaku and Dzeko’s styles.

“Everyone now has a winning mentality and that is why we are able to play in so many finals and win so many cups,” said Inter president Steven Zhang after the Italian Cup win over Fiorentina.

“I think in these kinds of games, our hearts and our minds matter,” he added. They do, but so do the tactics and talent that have earned Inter’s recent trophies.

Don’t write Inter off just yet.

(Top image: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)



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