Inter Milan stand between Manchester City and a historic European treble.
While City are the undeniable favourites to win on the night – they’re given a 74.1% chance of doing so by the Opta supercomputer – simple maths tell us that means Inter have a 25.9% chance of upsetting the apple cart. Why couldn’t Saturday be the one-in-four moment?
Particularly as Simone Inzaghi’s team finished the season with a flourish. Inter won 11 of their last 12 matches in all competitions to round out the season, including a Coppa Italia victory over Fiorentina.
Their end-of-season surge has seen them rise to third place in our Opta Power Rankings, meaning this year’s UEFA Champions League final will pit the number one team in the world against number three.
Yes, Inter will be underdogs for this game. Of that there is no doubt.
But how might they approach the game?
First, it’s important to note that Inzaghi’s team play very differently in Europe than they do domestically. And we mean very differently.
As one of the frontrunners in Italy, Inter often have to set the tempo in matches and need to take the initiative to break down “lesser” opponents.
Having run the gauntlet of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Porto, Benfica and Milan, that’s clearly not been the case for their route to the Champions League final.
On an aggregate level, Inter’s matches in Serie A are more open and see more action in both goalmouths. In the Champions League, the games are far more buttoned up.
And as for Inter themselves, as you’d expect, they’re far more dominant domestically. In Serie A, they averaged more xG per game (1.83) than any other side, while in the Champions League that average drops to 1.40 xG per game, good enough for only 19th best. Similarly, their underlying defensive record is far better in Italy than in Europe.
Two things go into that. First, the calibre of opposition Inter play is far higher in Europe than in Italy, making it more difficult to dominate games both offensively and defensively. And second is the fact that Inter’s playing style varies drastically between the two competitions. The two are obviously linked.
The below sequence numbers show just how differently Inter play in each competition.
In Serie A, they press a lot more aggressively, start their sequences way higher up the pitch and also enjoy far more long passing moves.
Those trends are all flipped in the Champions League where Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation turns into a back five, and they are happier to defend deeper.
To emphasise just how deep Inter defend, 59.8% of all their pressures in the Champions League have come in their own half, the highest percentage of any side to qualify from the group stage.
And just 22% of their high pressures come in the final third – the 24th lowest ratio out of the 32 teams in the competition.
With the Ball:
But the move to a far more pragmatic approach has arguably been the secret to their run to the final.
Inter have kept eight clean sheets in 12 UEFA Champions League matches this season, including five in six games in the knockout stages. Should they hold Man City to another shutout here, they would equal the record for most clean sheets in the knockout stages in a single edition of the tournament (six – previously done by Arsenal in 2005-06).
There have been thrilling games in the Champions League knockout stages in recent years but – aside from their rogue 3-3 against Benfica – Inter have not participated in any.
And that’s exactly how they want it to be.
Without the ball, Inter are happy to cede possession and retreat inside their own half, setting up in a 5-3-2 low block.
This is not a passive block though, with the backline particularly aggressive when given the opportunity. Wing-backs Federico Dimarco and the dynamic Denzel Dumfries are constantly on the front foot to press opposition wingers or full-backs.
And the wide centre-halves, typically Matteo Darmian and Alessandro Bastoni, aren’t afraid to step out and be aggressive on opposition midfielders or strikers that drop deep.
But by settling into that low block and clogging up midfield, Inter have been able to slow down opposition attacks at a far higher rate in Europe than in Serie A.
In the Champions League, teams have progressed the ball forward against Inter at 1.32 metres per second, compared to a speedier 1.48m/s in Serie A.
Teams can’t play through Inter as easily either, and instead they are forced to attack down the sides. The average width of Inter’s opposition’s sequences is 25.3m in the Champions League in 2022-23, one of the widest rates in the competition.
The low block and counter method is not exactly a new tactic to play against City, but it’s the way Inzaghi will go.
With the Ball:
Pep Guardiola will surely continue to use John Stones in his hybrid centre-back/centre-midfield role as City look to build up in their 3-2 base. That’ll give them stability and control in the middle of the park, but it does offer space down the sides.
If Inter’s two strikers can pin back and isolate City’s centre-backs, then Inter’s wing-back pairing of Dimarco and Dumfries can exploit space in the channels on the counter. Those two are always on the lookout for transitional moments and will spring forward quickly on the counter-attack if the opportunity arises. Aside from the two centre-forwards, the wing-backs are often the furthest players forward for Inter as they break
Dimarco has been a real threat down the left this season. He has six goals and eight assists in all competitions so far, and just four of his teammates can better his 14 total goal involvements.
Those numbers include five UCL assists, and the Italian’s whipped in 37 crosses from open play in Europe in 2022-23. Both those tallies are only beaten by one player: Kevin De Bruyne.
While Dimarco’s all about delivery, Dumfries is all about getting into the box as frequently as he can. He averages four touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes across all competitions in 2022-23 – just two defenders (Jeremie Frimpong (4.4) and Alphonso Davies (4.1)) average more this season across Europe’s top five leagues.
On the other side, Dimarco averages a healthy 2.9 touches in the opposition area per 90. The only players in Inter’s squad that can better the rates of each wing-back are the four strikers in the side.
Given how advanced both get, don’t be surprised to see one wing-back cross to another…
And the sequence below in Inter’s second leg of their semi-final against Milan shows how effectively they can attack down the sides.
Dimarco starts the move with a direct ball into the channel…
… Edin Džeko runs it down hard…
… he cuts inside and angles a pass into the path of the charging Dumfries…
… who lays the ball back for Nicolò Barella to shoot on goal.
In terms of the starting strikers, Inzaghi has usually fielded Dzeko and Lautaro Martínez in the Champions League – the pair have started nine of Inter’s 12 Champions League games, and every single one of their knockout matches – while he’s used Romelu Lukaku and Joaquín Correa in Serie A.
This seems to have revitalised Lukaku, who’s registered more goal involvements (12 – seven goals, five assists) in Serie A since April than any other player. He’s also been massively impactful off the bench in Europe. Despite only playing 144 minutes and not starting a single game, Lukaku is the only Inter player to have either scored or assisted in every round they’ve featured in.
Inzaghi averages 4.9 substitutes per game in the Champion League (the second highest of any team), so it is clear in-game rotations are a key part of his game plan.
But it’s Martínez who is Inter’s talisman and main hope of an upset. With 28 goals in all competitions, he’s scored at least twice as many as any other player, and he leads the side for shots and shots in the box per 90. He’s also an underrated creator – no Inter player has created more chances than his 13. He is their match winner.
Another match winner – or maybe match saver – is in Inter’s other box. Goalkeeper André Onana will be out to thwart Erling Haaland and Co., and the Cameroonian ’stopper comes into the game in brilliant form. Based on the quality of shots on target he’s faced, Onana has prevented the most goals of any goalkeeper in the Champions League this season (7.8 – nine conceded from 16.8 xG on target).
Lastly a word on Simone Inzaghi himself. Since he joined Inter in 2021-22, his side have played 20 knockout matches across all competitions in the Champions League, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana. They’ve lost only once (W15 D4), keeping 12 clean sheets in those 20 fixtures and lifting four trophies.
Will it be trophy number five this weekend? If it is, it probably won’t be pretty, but Inzaghi will not care one bit.