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Opinion

England set expectations high with Iran thrashing

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Even the England band couldn’t ruin what was, by some distance, the most commanding tournament performance by an England team in decades.

It was better than the 6-1 win over Panama in Russia that it threatened at times to surpass on the scoreboard. Better than the 2-0 win over Germany at the 2020 Euros, which lest many forget hung on an uncharacteristic miss by Thomas Mueller.

No, this was a slick display of authority and dominance. Driven on by the precocious power of Jude Bellingham (19) in midfield, England took on an Iranian team who notably refused in unison to sing their national anthem. And that defiance showed up in a low-block 5-4-1 which invited England onto them, daring them to break them down.

For a while it worked. The lengthy stoppage for the head injury suffered by Iranian keeper Alireza Beiranvand – why was he allowed to resume play in the first place? – checked England’s progress, and there was a feeling at the nominal half-hour mark that this could be one of those days. Possession, probing but no penetration.

This time England began to successfully turn the screw. Gareth Southgate decided upon a back four of Kieran Trippier, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, with Bellingham and Declan Rice a dynamic shield in front. Mason Mount probed behind captain Harry Kane with Bukayo Saka and the out-of-form Raheem Sterling on either side. Fittingly, it was Bellingham who made the breakthrough. It was a lovely move started by a Maguire pass down the left. Luke Shaw clipped a lovely delivery, and there was Bellingham to guide an excellent header into the far corner of the Iranian net. It was no less than England deserved, having threatened through a Mount shot and a thumping Harry Maguire header against the crossbar.

England have not always been known for going for the jugular. This was a throwback to the heady days of 2019, of 4-3-3 and goals aplenty. They sensed the moment was there and seized it.

(Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

First, Saka volleyed in a clever knockdown by Maguire over a crowd of bodies from a corner. In the dying embers of the first half came arguably the best goal of the evening – Bellingham taking the ball in midfield, driving through Iran and laying off to Kane, who ably shifted his body and fizzed in a low cross that Sterling acrobatically converted. What a lovely player Bellingham is, combining the late-arriving instincts of both Gerrard and Lampard with a sense of verticality we have not seen often in an England midfielder. He must be managed carefully at club and international levels.

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The second half brought more goals. Saka crowned his night with a lovely jinking Arjen Robben-like goal from the right, drifting past two Iranian defenders before slotting it into the net. His place on the right wing seems secure at least for the next game. Then Marcus Rashford, on as a substitute, benefited from a lovely piece of control from Kane, who turned a defender, diagonally passed it to the Manchester United man and watched as Rashford coolly chopped infield and finished with his left foot. Both Saka and Rashford scoring meant there can now definitely be no talk of a hangover from their Euro 2020 penalty misses. There was still time for Callum Wilson to unselfishly tee up Jack Grealish for a tap-in, following which the Manchester City midfielder fulfilled a promise with his celebration.

Southgate will rightly be displeased at the manner of the two goals conceded to Mehdi Taremi though. The first was smart play to catch out a sleeping – but probably injured at that point – Maguire, following which Taremi smashed a clever first-time finish into the roof of the net. He also benefited when John Stones was adjudged to have pulled a shirt with the last play of the game, VAR leading the referee to decide on a penalty. Defensive lapses like these will cost England against other opposition both within the group and if they progress. It remains to be seen if Maguire will return for the game against the USA on Friday evening.

All this can be put to one side for the moment while England celebrate a thrashing they could scarcely have believed possible before the tournament. With controversy surrounding the onelove armband shadowing them prior to kickoff – a debate that will rumble on – this was about as good a performance as they could have picked out. The only worry is that Southgate will revert to his cautious type later in the tournament when England have shown the patterns of play that will trouble not just Iran but the more sizeable obstacles in their path to glory.

For the moment England have bared their teeth to the group and the competition. We will see what Brazil, Argentina, France, Portugal and the rest bring in response.

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