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At the start of Pep Guardiola’s managerial career, he seemed intent on creating the type of team that would have suited him as a player.

A slender, technical midfielder who lacked physicality but could spread play calmly, Guardiola’s playing career ended prematurely because football no longer suited his type of player; defensive midfielders at the turn of the century were supposed to be about power and ball-winning ability.

But Guardiola won the European Cup in his first season as a manager, with Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta — three players who grew up idolising him — in midfield. It was, stylistically, an extraordinary achievement and almost an immediate justification of a personal crusade.

Perhaps his opposite number this weekend has something similar in mind. As a former centre-forward, Simone Inzaghi is somewhat rare as a manager of Champions League finalists. The last ex-striker to take a team to this stage was Jupp Heynckes with Bayern in 2013, before that it was Sir Alex Ferguson with Manchester United.

Those two retired from playing in the 1970s, whereas Inzaghi was playing until 2010, when two-striker formations were increasingly rare at the top level, with the concept of the false nine set to rise to prominence.

And, sure enough, Inzaghi is also highly unusual because he almost religiously plays two up front. Depending upon your interpretation of Cristiano Ronaldo’s role towards the end of his time at Real Madrid, it’s arguable that Inter can become the first side for two decades to win the European Cup with two proper strikers in their starting XI since city rivals Milan did so in 2003.

That duo, funnily enough, featured Inzaghi’s elder brother Filippo, paired with Andriy Shevchenko.

As a player, the younger Inzaghi was a curious striker. He won Serie A with Lazio under the management of Sven-Goran Eriksson, and he also won three Italian caps — one came playing alongside his more celebrated brother. But Inzaghi was never particularly prolific. His most impressive season, by far, was his debut top-flight campaign with hometown club Piacenza, where he hit 15 goals in 30 games.

Eight of them were penalties. And while he played another 11 seasons in Serie A, he managed only 28 more goals, never more than seven in a single campaign.

Inzaghi was a useful player in a strike partnership, though. His best two campaigns came in a classic 4-4-2, first partnering Massimo Rastelli, more of a mobile second striker, in that Piacenza season, and then often deployed alongside Marcelo Salas in Lazio’s Scudetto-winning campaign. But he was seldom trusted to lead the line on his own.

As a manager, Inzaghi doesn’t play 4-4-2, he’s almost always favoured a two-up-front 3-5-2, first in a half-decade spell back at Lazio, and now with Inter. If his Lazio formation was sometimes more 3-5-1-1, with Luis Alberto floating behind Ciro Immobile, there’s little doubt that the use of two from Lautaro Martinez, Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku constitutes a proper 3-5-2.

And while Inzaghi isn’t the only manager to use two true strikers, especially in Serie A, at times it feels like teams have forgotten how to play against a proper strike duo.

Inter’s final home game of the season, a 3-2 victory over Atalanta, was a good demonstration of how devastating Inter’s front two can be. Here’s Inter’s classic move, which paid off for the opening goal within 40 seconds.

There’s a long ball up to Lukaku, who drags an opposition centre-back up the pitch while holding the ball up, and then lays it off to Martinez, before racing past the centre-backs to get the return pass, rounding the goalkeeper and tapping home into an empty net.

Inter’s third goal was similar. Again, it features Lukaku receiving the ball with his back to goal. The particularly effective thing here is that both Atalanta centre-backs are attracted towards the Belgian, who holds them off, turns and plays a through ball into the huge gap created in the centre of defence.

It’s so inviting that the pass, which could have been taken on by Martinez, is actually collected by onrushing midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, who has seen how much space there is to exploit. He rolls the ball to Martinez for another open goal.

These goals are typical of Inter’s play. Here’s a simpler version, when Inter came back from 1-0 down against Inzaghi’s former club Lazio. Again, when Lukaku holds up the ball, the centre-backs are in a good position. But when the left-sided centre-back gets drawn forward, Martinez knows his job is to sprint into the space behind him. Lukaku turns, slips him in, and the other defenders can’t recover in time to stop him sliding the ball home.

Judging by Inzaghi on the sideline in the first image, he seemed to know this goal was coming before Lukaku had even received the ball.

This goal, the equaliser in the Coppa Italia final against Fiorentina, was a strange one because Fiorentina’s right-sided centre-back Nikola Milenkovic gets himself in a terrible position, so troubled by Edin Dzeko’s positioning that he’s five yards behind his defensive colleagues. This plays Martinez onside, and he receives the ball from Brozovic and thumps it home.

Those are all examples of quick forward passes, but it also causes problems for opposition defences when the ball is out wide.

Here, with Denzel Dumfries breaking down the right, Lecce’s centre-backs are in the right positions. Samuel Umtiti is defending the near post space and keeping an eye on Dzeko. Behind him, Alessandro Tuia is marking Martinez.

But by the time the ball arrives, Tuia has darted forward towards Dzeko, manhandling him to prevent him reaching the cross. Two defenders against one striker, which leaves the other unmarked. Martinez has taken his cue — he peels off short, towards the near post, and finishes smartly.

Fiorentina were also exposed from a cross for Martinez’s second goal in that Coppa Italia final. The centre-backs are highlighted — this time it’s Lucas Martinez Quarta at fault — needlessly trying to push out and close down Nicolo Barella’s cross. This leaves one centre-back, Milenkovic, forced to defend against two strikers. Martinez nips in front of him, and smashes the volley home.

This weekend, Inter are more likely to cause more problems with their direct attacking. Sometimes, when quick passes are played up to the strikers, there’s so much space in the channel to exploit — here’s a Martinez goal against Udinese, from a simple long ball.

It also works well when Inter press aggressively in midfield. When Henrikh Mkhitaryan pushes up high to win the ball here against Verona, he has two forward passing options, at a time when Verona were pushing their full-backs into attack. Martinez receives the ball, then slips in Dzeko to finish.

And even when Inter’s strikers vary their positions, they’re usually on the same wavelength. Here’s Martinez’s winner away at Cremonese, which featured Dzeko dropping to receive the ball in space and glancing over his shoulder to check Martinez’s position. Martinez was begging for the pass, and finished into the far corner via a deflection.

On paper, Manchester City should be well prepared for this threat — they often effectively play four centre-backs across the defence, with Rodri shielding them just in front. Guardiola will hope that the 3-2 structure City use in possession will both provide a spare man at the back, and prevent the Inter strikers from receiving the ball to feet.

But it will be a relatively unusual challenge for City, and Inter can take encouragement from the fact that arguably the most impressive Premier League performance against Guardiola’s side this season came from Brentford, who won 2-1 at the Etihad with a classic display of direct football with a 3-5-2 system. Thomas Frank’s side then completed the double over City on the final day of the campaign, albeit when their opponents had already won the league and had their eye on two cup finals.

Inzaghi’s major decision is about whether to start with Dzeko or Lukaku alongside Martinez. Dzeko has enjoyed a better campaign, but Lukaku is a better fit tactically for what will surely be a counter-attacking approach. We are likely to see both, however, with Inzaghi always keen to use his full complement of substitutes, unlike Guardiola.

Inzaghi’s previous experience in a European final came against Manchester opposition, when Lazio beat United 1-0 in the 1999 Super Cup final. Inzaghi started up front alongside former City boss Roberto Mancini in that game, but was substituted through injury midway through the first half, with his replacement Salas scoring the only goal.

That rather sums up the fact that, as a player, Inzaghi was something of a nearly man. This final is his chance to ensure he’s never considered that way as a manager.

(Top photo: Valerio Pennicino – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)



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