Gareth Southgate knew Iran would set up deep and drilled, the result of an on-off decade of Carlos Queiroz’s smart coaching, and England’s solution was to stretch Iran’s defensive curtain until it ripped at the seams.
Iran’s 5-4-1 cluttered the centre of the pitch and England’s response was a system engineered for penetrative width. With the ball England formed a well-balanced 4-3-3 which created devastating triangles between full-backs, wingers and No 8s on either side, and it left an Iranian defence drawn and quartered by half-time.
Wingers Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling floated between vertical and horizontal lines, coming in off the sides to leave space for full-backs Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier to advance around the tips of the Iranian shape, while the midfield thrust of Mason Mount and Jude Bellingham formed the third point to create overloads.
Both triangles were at work in the build-up to England’s first goal. Saka, Bellingham and Trippier worked the ball out of a tight spot by the right corner flag and played it back to their centre-halves. From there Harry Maguire drew a midfielder just enough to open up a path, before firing a line-breaking ball through to Mount as the back-to-goal receiver, and England were in. Mount touched to Sterling who fed Shaw on the overlap, and Bellingham converted Shaw’s cross with an expertly placed header for 1-0.
If this was the basis of England’s midfield for the rest of the tournament – it is hard to imagine Kalvin Phillips displacing Bellingham any time soon – then it was a promising sight. Rice was England’s safe stitcher as Bellingham attempted to weave bolder patterns. The teenager completed five line breaks within 10 minutes and carried the air of an essential piece in England’s machine.
Here was the advantage of Bellingham, an adept box-to-box midfielder playing as an eight who gives England useful tactical flexibility. It meant with the ball they could push into the positive 4-3-3 shape with high full-backs and liberated wingers; and without the ball, which admittedly was rare, Bellingham backtracked diligently to help Rice and make a 4-2-3-1.
England’s revolving attacking plates worked around their centre-piece, Harry Kane, who toiled with his back to goal absorbing Iran’s defensive hits. Kane might have been irked not to get a goal himself but he was involved in three of England’s five and complemented the enthusiastic legs around him.
Sterling was in off the wing again for England’s fourth goal, picking up Shaw’s header before turning to run directly at the Iranian defence. He found Saka who cut inside and scored his second of the game, but what was notable was to see both Mount and Bellingham in the box screaming for the pass and a chance to score themselves.
Using two truly attacking midfielders has not been a feature of Southgate’s England blueprint in recent years, not since the double No8s of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard in the 2018 World Cup, but even then they came with the protection of a back five. Yes, this was a performance against England’s weakest Group D opponents, but perhaps it was an indication that Southgate is prepared to gently lower the handbrake at this World Cup, if not release it completely.
That is perhaps a decision dictated to Southgate by the quality of his forward-thinking players and particularly by Bellingham, whose dynamism all over the pitch demands to be let free. It was the 19-year-old’s late pass which freed Callum Wilson who teed up Jack Grealish for England’s sixth, and it left the impression that Bellingham might just be essential to this World Cup cause, both for his tactical flexibility and his natural gift.