England – Iran: England Ease Past Iran (6-2)

Gareth Southgate’s team dominated possession from the start here against a passive Iran side. England looked cohesive in their 4-2-3-1 formation as sharp movements helped them carve out openings, and they were able to gain a comfortable win against an Iran team who grabbed two consolation goals in the second half.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

England opened their World Cup campaign by facing Iran in a game which had the potential to be tricky, despite the difference in player quality on paper. Gareth Southgate is more likely to line up with a back four in games where England are expected to dominate possession, and he did so here, as England started with a 4-2-3-1 shape.

The back four was made up of Kieran Trippier, John Stones, Harry Maguire, and Luke Shaw, while Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham partnered in central midfield. Mason Mount was the number ten, with Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling either side of him in support of Harry Kane up front.

Iran won their World Cup qualification group, and the squad is reunited with former coach Carlos Queiroz. They started in a 5-4-1 shape with Morteza Pouraliganji, Rouzbeh Cheshmi, and Majid Hosseini as center-backs, while Sadegh Moharrami and Milad Mohammadi were the wing-backs. In midfield was the quartet of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Ahmad Nourollahi, Ali Karimi, and Ehsan Hajsafi behind Mehdi Taremi as striker.

England dominance

Iran’s strategic plan was clear from the first minutes in this game, and had already quite predictable before the match. They sat in a low defensive block in their 5-4-1 shape looking to frustrate England and be difficult to break down.

England’s nominal shape was a 4-2-3-1 formation, including in the very rare occasions where they needed to organize against the ball. In terms of England’s structure in possession, Rice would often be the deepest midfielder, while Bellingham had license to roam forward, getting between the lines during buildup and making runs into the box in crossing situations. This meant that England sometimes resembled more of a 4-3-3 system when they had the ball.

Bellingham would often tend towards the right halfspace, while Mount often played from the left  halfspace. Sterling was able to drift inside as Shaw overlapped, where he could help overload the left halfspace with Mount, as shown in the buildup to England’s first goal.

In the buildup to England’s first goal, Sterling can be seen indenting to play close to Mount. He is able to receive the ball from Mount after Maguire’s line-breaking pass, and pass wide to Shaw, who found Bellingham’s late run into the box. 

On the right side, Trippier and Saka were also quite flexible. Sometimes Trippier would tuck into midfield to leave Saka in isolation against his wing-back. Other times, Trippier would overlap in the more usual fashion while Saka played between the lines.

In most cases, England were fairly well structured and showed some good movements to create breakthroughs against the deep defense of Iran. The passiveness of Iran’s defense allowed England to commit plenty of players forward without too many worries about the security of their rest-defense.

England substitutes find the net

England had been able to add two more goals in quick succession at the end of the first half from Saka and Sterling to make it 3-0 at the break. Queiroz made a triple change at half time and the second half saw Iran try to play a bit further up the pitch, although this introduced its own opportunities for England.

With Iran less compact than they had been in the first half, England’s forwards could benefit from larger spaces available to attack than they had in the first half. Saka was able to add his second goal just after the hour mark, before Iran pulled one back with a rare attack which was finished well by Taremi.

Southgate decided to bring on four substitutes with twenty minutes to go. Eric Dier replaced Maguire in central defense, meanwhile the attacking midfield trio were swapped out as Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford entered in place of Saka, Sterling, and Mount. Kane was also taken off a few minutes later, with Callum Wilson being given his chance up front.

The substitutes were able to make their mark in the time they had on the pitch. Rashford scored with a composed finish within just a minute of entering, while Grealish converted from close range in the final minute of regular time, assisted by Wilson.

Overall, the second half had been fairly simple for England, able to keep possession and attack at will with a healthy scoreline behind them. There was still one final twist though, as Iran found themselves another goal deep into stoppage time via Taremi’s penalty kick.


England put the game to bed here within the first half thanks to some good attacking movement and clinical finishing when the chances arose. It was not a flawless performance, but on the day they had far too much ability for Iran to deal with. Bellingham’s driving presence from midfield was once again a key part of England’s game, while Sterling and Saka looked lively in wide positions.

There was plenty of debate before the tournament about England’s potential tactics, as it was difficult to know which system Southgate would go with. He is more likely to use a back four in games where England expect to dominate, and that rule was followed again here. By this logic, maybe England will continue to use the back four throughout the group stages. The more interesting test will be whether Southgate sticks with this system against the top sides if England reach the knockout stages, or whether he reverts to a back three as he did last year.

Iran were expected to perform a bit better than they did here. They were unable to defend against the fluid movements of England’s front four and the supporting runs of the fullbacks. Going forward, Iran were predictably blunt for much of the game, although Taremi showed good striking instinct in front of goal.

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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