Scoring six goals to start your World Cup campaign is just about as good as it gets. An emphatic victory of this type had seemed unlikely when you consider England entered on the back of a six-game winless streak. As a result, the mood of the nation had been quite restrained, with pressure growing on England coach Gareth Southgate amidst a growing belief that he sets his team up too negatively, effectively causing them to play with the handbrake on.
However, it doesn’t take much to change the mood of the English public when it comes to tournament soccer.
Collectively, they will portray a self-deprecating image of their team heading into a tournament and will mockingly claim that ‘Football’s Coming Home.’
Following England’s goal-fest against Iran, you can rest assured that, deep down, they are already starting to believe. It is hard to over-state how invested the country becomes during a World Cup. Moderates become fanatics; the disinterested become engaged. And the fans? Generally they become unbearable.
Best start possible for England
The wildly positive opening result against Iran has set the early tone of believing in this squad of players again. After a win of this nature, social media comes alive. The mainstream media outlets provide enthusiastic coverage. Pundits start to talk up the talent within the team.
With this prevailing narrative being consumed by the public, the belief that England are destined to be world champions must begin to seem reasonable. Sociologists refer to this as a ‘plausibility structure’: a group of people who reinforce and revitalize one another’s beliefs and deconstruct all influences to the contrary. This is England – they can’t help it.
In fairness to Southgate, his pragmatic approach means he personally is unlikely to get carried away – an endearing characteristic for the neutral. Following the match, he acknowledged that “Iran are difficult to score goals against so it’s a credit to our players of the movement, the quality of our passing and finishing”.
He did, though, also state “to concede two goals the way we did is not the level we need. We need to be better than we were today against the USA because they will be coming at us full throttle”.
It is important that he doesn’t allow his squad to get carried away with beating an Iran side that offered little resistance.
Iran selection surprises
The game turned out to be far less challenging than England will have expected. Pre-match, it was reported that Iran coach Carlos Queiroz had selected a surprising line up, leaving three regular starters from their defense and midfield on the bench, despite having no reported fitness issues.
Losing goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand to a head injury early in the game also didn’t help matters, as his replacement appeared to be well short of international caliber. Perhaps Queiroz over-thought his tactical approach to the game, but more likely he had one eye on the upcoming matches against Wales and USA.
Despite scoring twice, Iran offered very limited threat going forward, and sought almost exclusively to contain England – a task they were incapable of. England’s goals came too easily, with four of the goals created by exploiting a weakness on the left side of Iran’s defense.
It should be noted that, in over 100 games in charge of Iran, Queiroz had never seen his side concede more than three goals in a match. The rest of the group will help to indicate whether Iran were really poor, or if England made them look that way.
An Attacking Intent from England
Anticipating that they would have the dominant share of possession, and facing a packed defense, Southgate opted for a 4-3-3 formation, which included full backs Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw occupying advanced positions out wide. Probably the biggest advantage of this system was providing Jude Bellingham with license to roam, and he ultimately seized control of the game, including scoring the opening goal with an impressive header. Bellingham looked imperious throughout, and the fact he is still only 19 years old beggars’ belief. He is incredibly mature both on the pitch, and off it. He looks to be a born leader having already captained Borussia Dortmund. He has the physicality and the skill set to be the next big thing in world football. If he continues to perform as he did against Iran, he really could be the X-Factor for this England team.
The England line up looked very well balanced. Despite some issues with form, the defensive unit know each other well, and have all played together over the last two tournaments, with Declan Rice providing his usual excellent shielding in defensive midfield. Harry Kane didn’t manage to score, but he did manage two assists. He is such an incredibly smart player, and often dropped deep to be the link man. His ability to play penetrative passes is an asset to the team, and he is a player in his prime who inherently knows how to exploit weaknesses in an opponent.
Saka and Sterling both justified their selections, offering pace and dribbling ability cutting in from either flank. Bukayo Saka in particular looked a constant threat, scoring two excellent goals, and offers tireless work rate. Southgate went with his tried-and-tested players. His generally inflexible selections have been a cause of public criticism, but it means that this side have a sense of cohesion and familiarity with what is expected of them.
Given the fact that every player did themselves justice, including Pickford who made an outstanding late save, it may be that Southgate will stick with this line up for Friday’s game against USA.
With tougher tests to come, it will be interesting to see if Southgate will return to three at the back, particularly when Kyle Walker is deemed fit. He offers excellent recovery pace, and insurance in the section of this team which is undoubtedly weakest. The idea of Neymar or Kylian Mbappé running at Harry Maguire would be a sobering thought to most England fans.
However, Maguire did give an extremely assured, even dominant performance up until his withdrawal on 67 minutes following a head injury. He was excellent in possession, and demonstrated his range of passing, consistently finding Trippier and progressing the ball forward with precision. He won all of his defensive duels, and even came close to scoring in the first half when he headed against the crossbar.
He could possibly be criticised for his positioning leading to Iran’s opening goal, but that blame should at least be shared. At times, though, he can be over-eager to attack the ball, and it is important that his defensive partners can provide cover behind him. He is also liable to having his lack of pace exposed and needs to be at his best in terms of both confidence and decision-making in order to avoid this becoming an Achilles heel for his team. There is no doubt his place is assured, and his manager retains full confidence in him.
Boost from the England bench
A further positive for England was the strength they were able to introduce from the bench. Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Callum Wilson all made an impact when introduced, and will all push for a starting place as the tournament progresses. With five substitutions being permitted in games, having this variety of options to come on in the forward positions could prove crucial. This assortment of talent offers a mixture of pace, dribbling, close control and ruthless finishing that may be needed when faced with some disciplined and well-organised defences.
Momentum building for England
Winning breeds confidence, and this was a dream start for England. They have shown their attacking potential, and other nations have taken note. They must, though, guard against complacency and their focus must remain on emerging from this group. They will face sterner tests and need to show endeavor and work rate to supplement their attacking talent. This group of players do seem to have humility though. And the fever pitch of the British public may not migrate all the way to Qatar
The concerns remain around England’s defense, which the best sides in the competition will be confident they can exploit. That being said, England should be capable of exposing weaknesses of even the strongest teams. It may ultimately come down to collective mentality within his England squad.
Do they really believe they can go all the way?
Photo credit: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo
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