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“You have to win the Europe (Champions League) to be considered one of the really good teams, and we did it,” said a tired Pep Guardiola after finally clinching the Champions League title with Manchester City.

“Suffering, we couldn’t expect differently because Inter is an exceptional team — physicality and the patterns they do. But sometimes you need this type of luck that in the past, against Tottenham (and in) other games, we didn’t have it. Today we have it.”

Inter had a number of very close chances. Federico Dimarco’s header hit the bar before his second header was blocked by team-mate Romelu Lukaku and the Belgium striker then aimed a free header towards Ederson instead of putting it into the net with only two minutes remaining. Lautaro Martinez could also have changed the whole narrative had he capitalised on Manuel Akanji’s error early in the second half.

It would have been a fine example of how Inter Milan’s organisation in the middle of the pitch created problems for City’s game on the ball. That Martinez chance originated from Marcelo Brozovic moving up to press Rodri, before Akanji thought Ederson was coming out to sweep.

Things could have been different, but some luck was needed. And, to be fair, City were due some.

Their game on the ball wasn’t their most fluid, especially in the final third. And when Inter were trying to pick up all parts of their diamond midfield, the City players didn’t play the risky pass into the free John Stones as frequently as they should have.

However, it was their off-ball game that shone again — a recurrent theme throughout the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League. It was Ederson, Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake, Stones, Akanji and, to a lesser degree, Rodri who stepped up in Istanbul.

The difference between this City side and the previous ones, as Guardiola explains, is the four “proper” defenders behind Rodri. “I think we defend a little bit better in the box — four central defenders, proper defenders,” he told BT Sport after the game. “Even (when) we make a mistake, I had the feeling we are more solid.”

This was also his opinion last week when asked if this City side was his best. “I am not saying that the team with 100 points was worse than this,” said Guardiola. “Maybe we are more solid, our back four all defenders. Maybe in the past we didn’t have that.”

Looking back on the knockout stages, these four proper defenders alongside Rodri were crucial to City conceding only three goals in seven games. Their ability to dominate in duels complemented City’s high pressing in the second leg against RB Leipzig, the solid defending of the box prevented Bayern Munich from coming back into the game at the Etihad before Guardiola altered the pressing scheme in the second half, and it was the performance of the back four that derailed Bayern at the Allianz Arena where Thomas Tuchel’s side was clearly the better team.

Then Kyle Walker limited Vinicius Jr in the first leg of the semi-final against Real Madrid, with the help of Dias’ commanding defending of his penalty box and Rodri’s octopus-like midfield presence in a game where City controlled only the first 25 minutes. “I learnt this season when you play against Bukayo Saka, Vinicius Jr, Gabriel Martinelli or Mohamed Salah, you need proper defenders to win duels one-on-one,” said Guardiola a few weeks later.

In the return leg against Madrid, the proper defenders were once again vital. Their monstrous one-versus-one ability factored in City’s pressing scheme and meant that they could match Karim Benzema, Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo at the back as Akanji positioned himself between Dani Carvajal and the rest of City’s back four. This enabled the Swiss defender to pounce if the ball was played to Carvajal or drop to contest the second ball if Real Madrid went long.

Through their abilities in duels, defending in transitional situations and winning second balls, City’s proper defenders plus Rodri guided Guardiola’s side to the Champions League final.

Against Inter it was more of the same. Solid performances from Dias and Akanji complemented Ederson’s saves, and the duo being comfortable enough to play in a two-versus-two scenario against Edin Dzeko and Martinez helped City’s pressing scheme.

As standard, City’s initial shape off the ball was a 4-4-2/4-2-4…

…and their main pressing idea was to prevent Inter from connecting with their players that are in the centre of the pitch.

When Inter were building up in a back three, Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish (yellow) arced their runs from outside to inside to press Alessandro Bastoni and Matteo Darmian, while blocking the passing lane into Inter’s wing-backs.

Behind them, Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland (blue) dropped to cover Brozovic and Hakan Calhanoglu, allowing Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan (white) to cover the centre of the pitch with the German keeping an eye on Nicolo Barella’s movement.

When Simone Inzaghi’s side built up in a back four with Francesco Acerbi pushing into midfield, City maintained a similar approach. Bernardo and Grealish (yellow) were focusing on pressing from outside to inside, Haaland and De Bruyne (blue) covered Acerbi and Brozovic, while Rodri and Gundogan (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 worked: with Bastoni on the ball and Acerbi moving up, Bernardo (yellow) presses Inter’s left centre-back from an angle that blocks the passing lane into Dimarco.

Meanwhile, De Bruyne is marking Acerbi and Haaland is covering Brozovic (blue) as Rodri and Gundogan (white) are marking Calhanoglu and Barella. Bastoni switches the play towards Darmian on the other side, and Grealish (yellow) pounces…

…forcing the Italian defender into a rushed pass towards Barella, which Gundogan manages to intercept.

Akanji and Dias were key to City’s pressing scheme. Andre Onana’s ball-playing ability, and the hold-up game of the Inter forwards meant in theory that the goalkeeper could find Martinez and Dzeko directly, but that’s where City’s “proper” defenders come in.

They were comfortable going into one-versus-one duels against Inter’s forwards, and when Denzel Dumfries pushed forward, Ake picked him up.

In another example, Onana goes long towards Martinez and Dzeko…

…but Dias wins the aerial duel and heads the ball towards Ake.

Plenty of variables factored in City winning their first Champions League and accordingly completing a historic treble. But the decision to stick with the four proper defenders and the different pressing schemes used gave them an extra edge in the knockout stages.

“Now is a big step (for this team) I think,” Guardiola told CBS Sports after winning the competition for the third time.

“Now we enjoy defending.”



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