Why Guardiola must keep it simple against Inter

By Alex Keble 9 Jun 2023
Pep Guardiola reacts

Alex Keble says Man City manager's past tinkering should be dumped to win first Champions League at the club

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Manchester City have claimed five of the last six Premier League titles but are hoping to win their first UEFA Champions League against Internazionale Milano on Saturday.

Pep Guardiola has incredibly claimed 11 league titles in 13 seasons as a manager, yet has only triumphed twice in the Champions League, and not since 2011.

The reasons for the discrepancy between his domestic and European record have long been disputed but are generally summarised in two main theories.

Firstly, that Guardiola is prone to "over-thinking" in big Champions League matches, or that his tactics are better suited to the controlled domination of a 38-match league season rather than the cut-and-thrust of knockout football.

Both theories have merit, both have flaws. But what’s striking about Man City’s run in this year’s Champions League is that – conscious or not – Guardiola appears to have responded to both accusations, slightly altering the way he tackles the competition.

Cautious away approach

The most notable difference between this season and last is Man City’s newfound respect for the solid, but unspectacular, away draw.

They have drawn each of their last five away Champions League matches - some to protect leads and others to stay tight before a second leg on home turf. On each occasion Man City have been more cautious than we are used to.

In 2021/22, they beat RB Leipzig 6-3 in the group stage thanks to the high line and hard-pressing approach we have seen in the Premier League for so long. This year, faced with RB Leipzig in the second round, Guardiola pulled on the reins.

“Maybe in the second leg, I will be crazy and play with nine strikers and make up-and-downs,” he said after the 1-1 draw in Leipzig. “But in this game, I felt I need this type of control because, when it’s open, German teams are better than us.”

That kind of humility defines the new approach, and it can be found in the statistics, too, when you compare Man City’s performances in the Premier League with the Champions League this season.

They are seeing less of the ball, pressing less often or intensely (a lower passes per defensive action (PPDA) indicates greater pressing), and conceding fewer chances.

Guardiola is showing greater caution than we have seen from his team in the past, burnt, perhaps, by previous experience.

Man City PL v UCL comparison
Season 2022/23 PL UCL
Possession 64.7% 60.3%
xGA* 1.5 0.7
PPDA 11.7 13.1
Tackles/Interceptions per 90 18.3 20.6

*Expected Goals Against (xGA)

In their shock 3-1 semi-final defeat at Real Madrid last season, Man City were relatively conservative in their shape – but not compared with this year.

They allowed a 2.3 xGA and, although unlucky to concede those late goals, it was their instinctive progressive style that cost them in extra-time.

Karim Benzema’s match-winning penalty came from one easy pass through Man City’s tired high press, cutting them open and releasing Eduardo Camavinga to dribble forward.

Real 1
Man City's high press last season was capitalised on by Real Madrid
Real 2
Eduardo Camavinga is able to pick up possession unchallenged and progress forward

Compare that with this season when, late in the match at the Bernabeu, Man City continued with the game plan deployed throughout the 90 minutes of holding off and compressing space between the lines, rather than pressing high. They allowed just 0.7 xGA.

Real 3
Man City compress space between the lines

Granted, in last season’s encounter Man City were understandably shaken by what had happened minutes before, but it forms part of a wider strategic shift towards conservatism, both within these two matches (Man City recorded a PPDA of 13.2 at the Bernabeu in 2021/22 but 16.4 this season) and more generally.

Guardiola’s side held 44 per cent possession at home to Bayern Munich in the quarter-final and 42 per cent on the road, their second and third-lowest possession shares of the season in all competitions.

The lowest, 37 per cent in a 3-1 Premier League win at Arsenal, was another example of Guardiola’s new tolerance with a lower block plus a more reactive, wait-and-see tactical approach.

No more ‘over thinking’

Guardiola does not believe he overthinks the big matches and neither do most Man City fans.

They do have a point. He tweaks his tactical approach every single time and when it goes right pundits rarely seem to notice, only doing so when Man City fall short in big televised matches.

But confirmation bias cannot fully explain the phenomenon. At Bayern Munich in 2014, he used a previously untested 4-2-4 formation in a semi-final against Real Madrid, vacating central midfield and losing 4-0.

The next year, against Barcelona and again in the semi-final, he used a rare back three and a man-to-man system to track Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar, and although he reinstated his usual formation after early chaos, the psychological pattern had been set. Bayern were beaten 3-0.

At Man City, he played Aymeric Laporte in an unfamiliar left-back role where he struggled desperately against a dominant Mohamed Salah as Liverpool won 3-0 in the first leg of their second-round match in 2018.

Then in the 2020 quarter-final against Lyon, Guardiola was surprisingly negative, picking five defenders at the expense of David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez as City lost 3-1.

Finally, in the 2021 Champions League final, he started without a defensive midfielder, leaving Rodri and Fernandinho on the bench.

Surprise selection unlikely

Guardiola is a genius and almost always gets it right. But these are five times across five different Champions League seasons in which he sprung a huge surprise, plumping for something untested in a competitive fixture, only to see it backfire.

The good news for Man City supporters is that those days seem to be over.

Guardiola used the same starting XI for both legs of the quarter-final with Bayern Munich and the same side for both legs of the semi-final against Real Madrid.

Indeed, there was only one change overall between the two ties, Nathan Ake was replaced by Kyle Walker for the Real ties.

Starting XI for both Bayern games
Man City's starting XI for both matches v Bayern Munich
Starting XI for both Real games
Man City's starting XI for both matches v Real Madrid

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the shape of these line-ups. Indeed, throughout Man City’s superb run towards the end of the season – once the new 3-2-2-3 formation had been installed – it was about consistency.

Players might come in and out, but the shape has remained the same, and therefore it appears less likely than ever that Guardiola will trial a novel approach for the final.

Inter challenge could upset the flow

Ironically, perhaps Simeone Inzaghi’s Inter demand a disruption to the usual Man City method - although that depends on quite how defensive the Italian side choose to play.

Inter beat Barcelona 1-0 in the group stages while holding just 28 per cent possession, sitting in a low block to frustrate the visitors.

Meanwhile Man City were beaten 2-1 at home by Brentford this season with Thomas Frank’s side deploying a 5-3-2 that is remarkably similar to Inzaghi’s at Inter.

Assuming Inter concede territory and look to slow Man City down, there is a case to be made that – for the first time in this season’s Champions League knockout stage – Guardiola cannot implement his newly cautious system in an away match, and will instead be forced to hog possession and counter-press deep in the opposition third.

An alternative view is that greater caution is, in fact, precisely what’s needed. If Man City play like they do at home, pressing hard and swarming forward, they will encourage Inter’s counters and provide space for Romelu Lukaku and/or Lauturo Martinez behind their high line.

By that logic, holding Inter at arms’ length could disrupt Inzaghi’s game plan, luring them further out than they would like to give Man City the advantage.

It can be read either way, which is why some say Inter are the worst kind of opponent Man City could face and far more likely than Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Leipzig to make Guardiola question his usual approach.

You can go back and forth all day on how best to tackle Inter. You can get stuck in your head. You can, quite quickly, start to over-think it.

Also in this series

Part 1: Guardiola: History won't define this year's final
Part 3: How losing to Liverpool helped Inter's progression
Part 4: Who are Inter's key men Man City must watch?
Part 5: Premier League clubs in Champions League finals

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