As is absolutely always the case, England made a lightning fast start to a major tournament as they swept Iran aside 6-2 to get their World Cup campaign up and running.
It was a dazzling performance from Gareth Southgate’s side against opponents who went from ‘Iran, of course, dangerous opponents: ranked 20th in the world and they beat Uruguay a couple of months ago’ to ‘It’s only Iran’ in record time…
Brilliant injury-time save when England’s still-worrying defence parted alarmingly but will be deeply annoyed to have conceded a couple of goals in a game the Three Lions so thoroughly dominated.
The fact it was a back four did little to impede Trippier (or for that matter Luke Shaw) getting forward to join England’s frequent thrillingly good attacks. Not massively tested defensively, which is unlikely to remain the case. Often picked out Jude Bellingham, much like every England player seemed to be in fairness.
Hmm. Thumped a trademark header against the crossbar but had a couple of dicey moments defensively even before being caught out for Iran’s opening goal and then groggily making way for Eric Dier. Certainly wasn’t a performance that could definitively be filed under ‘answered his critics’ and does leave us strongly suspecting that the obvious attacking benefits to a back four may not outweigh the defensive iffiness against better opponents. This was a great England performance in so many ways, but in its way the combination of effervescent attacking menace and defensive vulnerability might have set the trap for Southgate to make what will be his Big Mistake when he goes to a back three and England subsequently find it harder to carve France apart than they did Iran.
And hmm. Two dodgy moments in injury-time, and while the offence that led to VAR awarding Iran a penalty was laughably small and twatty compared to the rugby tackle on Harry Maguire that went unpunished about four hours earlier, it was still the sort of daft mistake that decent teams watching England will have noted.
Lovely assist for Jude Bellingham’s lovely opening goal and like Trippier spent an almost indecent amount of his time in the Iran half. Again, very much in #TougherTestsAwait territory, but the attacking intent of England’s full-backs in a back four was one of many hugely encouraging aspects of Gung-ho England.
Not a game in which Rice’s vitally important role in this England side was going to be particularly eye-catching, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hugely important. The underlying numbers are just what you want and expect from Rice. A 95% pass accuracy rate from 95 passes, a solitary unstable touch, a tackle, three interceptions and a blocked shot. Just an absolutely vital part of this team.
Be still my beating heart. Important not to get carried away. Important to keep things in perspective but goodness gracious, what an absolutely absurd way to announce yourself on the World Cup stage. The first of five England players to net their maiden World Cup goal here and it was brilliantly done.
The fact a 19-year-old already being compared to Steven Gerrard scored a goal so reminiscent of Gerrard’s 2005 Champions League final effort wasn’t lost on anyone, and even though it was the vital nerve-settling opening goal of the game and really, really good it still wasn’t remotely the best thing Bellingham did. His passing was precise and progressive, frequently breaking the lines and twice playing in England’s striker – Harry Kane in the first half, Callum Wilson in the second – to set up an onrushing player to score. That is, he played a key part in two examples of what is just about England’s ideal goal given the make-up of the team.
Such an ideal foil for Rice and, with no disrespect intended to the eminently capable and thoroughly worthy Kalvin Phillips, already represents the conspicuous upgrade on England’s starting XI from 18 months ago. Has absolutely no right to be as good as he is at as many elements as he is of what is a notoriously tough role for a young player to master. He already looks like a compete box-to-box midfielder and is barely in the final year of his teens. Stunning.
Not as conspicuously involved as others and now the most obviously vulnerable starter from this team if/when Southgate goes to a back three but did absolutely nothing wrong and remains a capable and versatile option in multiple roles no matter what formation England go for. Missed one presentable early chance, but the key thing was that he got into the position to miss it. Midfielders and wide attackers getting into the penalty area is absolutely vital for England and Mount is pretty bloody good at it.
Ah, that’s just a lovely thing. Let’s not overplay the retribution thing, but there’s no escaping the fact that Saka’s last contribution for England in major tournament football was that missed penalty and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have adored watching him get his goals here after being preferred to Phil Foden. Due reward for general excellence and completes the unusual achievement of scoring one of the rarest of goals – a brilliant finish despite getting a deflection – not once but twice.
As is customary, came into the tournament with his starting place apparently under threat but as is also customary, in fact had his starting place under precisely zero threat in Gareth Southgate’s mind. Sterling is a big tournament player now and there is still nobody available to England who has better chemistry with Harry Kane. This was beautifully demonstrated with Sterling’s goal, in which he instinctively made the precise run Kane instinctively expected and provided the ideal cross for. There can’t be many examples of two players who have never played together at club level boasting this kind of symbiosis.
Didn’t score in a 6-2 thrashing, which is quite amusing, but absolutely made his mark with two assists that showed the unbelievable range he now possesses as a footballer and just why every single team at this tournament will a) fear him and b) wish he was theirs. But he isn’t theirs. He’s ours. Those criticisms of his fondness for dropping deep or drifting out wide to get on the ball have always missed the point about Kane and the strengths of his game, but especially so when so many players – Sterling, Mount, Saka, and towards the end Rashford, are getting beyond him and into the box. He’s England’s best goalscorer, but he’s also their most adept and versatile creator. The cross for Sterling was outrageously good, and while the touch and pass for Rashford left a bit more work to be done also created the chance out of nothing. Should have worn the armband, though.
MARCUS RASHFORD (for Saka, 70)
Scored the third fastest goal ever by a World Cup substitute, and in the process sent his defender so far out of the game that he had to try and use the official ticketing app to get back in the stadium. Apparently he’s still trying.
ERIC DIER (for Harry Maguire, 70)
Managed not to be involved in the occasional defensive unpleasantnesses that occurred late on, and his introduction means we can presumably slot him in as Harry Maguire’s first reserve. Which is probably quite good news for Harry Maguire.
JACK GREALISH (for Raheem Sterling, 70)
Became the fifth England player to score his first World Cup goal after being unselfishly set up by Callum Wilson and then did the celebration for his mate Finlay. Lovely.
PHIL FODEN (for Mason Mount, 70)
England being able to replace the entirety of the “3” in today’s 4-2-3-1 with absolutely zero drop-off in quality really is something. It is an absurd array of options at Southgate’s disposal and working around the genius of Kane does give England a chance against absolutely anyone.
CALLUM WILSON (for Harry Kane, 75)
Genuinely not sure there are many other 30-year-olds squaring that ball for Grealish on their first World Cup appearance with the score 5-1. Absolutely nobody would’ve blamed him for going for goal himself. Arguably more important than that decision, though, was the run itself. A brilliantly intelligent run, perfectly timed and expertly found by Bellingham. Wilson will exist in moments here and there at this World Cup but that is precisely the sort of thing he’s there to do.
READ MORE: England disperse some of the grey clouds at home by hitting Iran for six in World Cup opener
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