GARETH SOUTHGATE could not have dreamed of a better start to the World Cup for his England side than Monday’s 6-2 thrashing of Carlos Queiroz’s Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Queiroz, who worked as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant manager at Manchester United, has always ensured that his teams are notoriously difficult to break down.
In 2018, Queiroz was also in charge when they conceded just two goals across their three games in the competition.
Fast-forward to 2022 in Qatar, Iran have already conceded three times that amount.
Queiroz’s men were anything but tough to break through, proving to be incredibly permeable throughout.
Most viewers expected the Three Lions to take all the points but perhaps not in the fashion that the game unfolded.
Let’s deep-dive into how England tore Iran to shreds in Doha.
Going into this game, based off of past evidence from the two nations’ most recent fixtures, it was likely that England would be sent out to the pitch by Southgate in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
This shape was deployed by the former Middlesbrough manager at Euro 2020 as well as the last round of the Nations League matches.
Southgate favours this formation as it provides greater defensive balance, particularly by having someone like Kyle Walker as one of the three centre-backs, allowing the Man City man to mask the pace deficiency of Harry Maguire or even Eric Dier when he plays.
However, as confirmed by Southgate in his pre-match press conference at the weekend, England would be forced to make do without Walker against Iran.
Rather than shoehorning another defender into a three-man defensive line, the manager switched the team’s formation to a 4-3-3, using Kieran Trippier as the right-back with Maguire and John Stones operating as the heart of the backline.
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When England had possession in Iran’s half and were looking to break down their low defensive block, the full-backs would push high, the wingers would move inside and play off Harry Kane.
And crucially Jude Bellingham also positioned himself in much more advanced areas of the pitch than his role in the 3-4-2-1 allows.
Bellingham made numerous runs into the penalty area, showcasing his true box-to-box capabilities.
At Borussia Dortmund, the teenager is normally positioned on the right of a three-man midfield, giving him the license to push forward and display his attacking qualities.
Normally in Southgate’s 3-4-2-1, Bellingham plays in a double-pivot alongside Rice and practically has a leash around him, limiting how far up the pitch he can move due to the risk of leaving his midfield partner overloaded in the middle of the park.
The ex-Birmingham City academy product has enjoyed some wonderful performances alongside Rice in a two-man partnership.
But he seems far more comfortable in a three when he is allowed to be a threat in the penalty area.
His goal came from this exact situation.
England’s shift from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-3-3 was not the only surprise of the World Cup clash.
Under Queiroz, during their pre-tournament friendlies, the Middle Eastern side have typically lined up in a 4-3-3 which drops into a mean 4-1-4-1 defensive block out of possession.
The Portuguese pragmatist is rather rigid in his tactical approach and so it was a shock to see Iran take to the field in a 5-4-1 shape.
There was a clear attempt from the nation’s longest-serving manager to make it even more difficult for England to break them down by throwing in an extra man in the backline.
This turned out to be a mistake by the coach.
Nonetheless, the team’s approach was not so shocking.
Iran’s defensive line was incredibly low as they looked to soak up pressure from England and hit Southgate’s men on the break.
In theory, this seems like a perfectly acceptable tactic, but the team’s execution was ghastly.
Ball progression from England’s centre-backs
Rightly or wrongly, Harry Maguire has received immense criticism from Manchester United fans, England supporters and pundits ever since the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign after Euro 2020.
The defender has even been dropped by his club manager Erik ten Hag for some dreadful performances since the start of the current season.
During the Nations League fixtures a few weeks back, the United skipper was certainly ropey and even gave away a penalty against Germany for a sloppy tackle inside the box.
Nonetheless, Southgate still picked the most expensive defender of all time in his World Cup squad heading to Qatar.
Maguire’s display against Iran proved the England boss right.
One of the keys to picking apart any deep defensive block is reaching your attacking players between the lines.
The likes of Mason Mount, Kane and Raheem Sterling are excellent in pockets of space between the opposition’s midfield and defence.
Southgate trusted both Maguire and Stones to play these passes, bypassing Iran’s frontline and midfield to reach this area of the pitch.
In fact, England’s opening goal came from this exact situation after a relatively tedious 35 minutes without creating many clear-cut opportunities.
England were patient, cautiously passing the ball around the back, waiting for the perfect moment to find one of the attackers between the lines.
From there, they would up the tempo and either move the ball out wide to the highly-positioned full-backs or try and slip runners in behind.
For the most part, the former option reaped delicious fruits as England created numerous chances from the wide areas and even bagged two assists from this region of the pitch.
The role of Declan Rice
It’s fair to say that were no real underperformers for England during their opening game of the group.
There were some truly scintillating displays from many key players, especially in attack.
However, one player who seemingly went under the radar for their sumptuous performance for the Three Lions was West Ham skipper Declan Rice.
Rice is one of the best defensive midfield players at the World Cup, and indeed in Europe overall, and the 23-year-old showcased this against Iran.
The role of a No6 in a 4-3-3 is of utmost importance as it allows the two advanced midfielders to push forward and get involved in the attack while the single pivot remains deeper, helping to circulate the ball around as well as protecting the backline.
Iran’s game plan was to try and pick their moments to counterattack, meaning Rice had to be prepared for when these transitional moments occurred.
The Hammers man was vital to stifling Team Melli during these situations as Queiroz’s men rarely got past the halfway line from their counterattacks from deep.
Nevertheless, Rice’s importance was not just out of possession when Iran would attempt to hit England on the break.
He was also integral for Southgate’s side to be able to spread the ball around, particularly to the wide areas.
Often, the Chelsea target would drop deep alongside the centre-backs to pick up possession of the ball while also constantly screening the centre-backs to receive with his back turned to goal.
Furthermore, Rice continuously played long passes out to Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw when they were high up the pitch, offering easy access for England to reach the final third and put crosses into the box from which they scored twice.
So what does this all mean?
Many people’s opinions will have changed on England’s chances of going far in this World Cup.
Southgate has been heavily criticised in the past for the team’s rather pragmatic approach in games despite having a wealth of exciting, attacking talent at his disposal.
This eight-goal thriller proved that the 52-year-old is capable of playing expansive football.
However, it is also quite difficult to gauge just how good England are given that Iran made the game far from competitive.
The real test for the Three Lions will be whether or not they can hold and candle to some of the other favourites to win the competition, providing they qualify for the knockout phase, although this 6-2 victory has definitely gone a long way to ensure that they do.