England show they’ve got a bit more up to their sleeves, even if it’s not under One Love armbands.
The effervescent Jude Bellingham sparked a 6-2 rout of Iran, to indicate an evolution on the team, and ensure everything went with encouraging smoothness on the pitch.
The problems of the Nations League were forgotten, rendered irrelevant. It may be far too early to talk of winning this World Cup, given how poor a crisis-ridden Iran were, but Gareth Southgate’s side have now announced their candidacy with England’s best ever opening victory. This was why the players were never that bothered about recent results – and they clearly enjoyed themselves here. Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka certainly had better time than their last tournament match, both showing why they should be kept in the team, the Arsenal man illustrating why he has to be kept up front.
The problems for Fifa and Qatar only continue, meanwhile. It was the third successive day when this farcical World Cup’s many off-field issues dominated the agenda. Fifa’s pigheaded threat to punish teams with sporting sanctions for the OneLove armband meant the Football Association backed down, leading to Harry Kane wearing the bland ‘No Discrimination’ armband, but only served to make much more of a commotion over the whole subject. The governing body could perhaps have paid more attention to their ticketing system, given the breakdown of the application complicated entry for so many supporters. It was just another logistical issue in this tournament to go with all the more serious concerns, which were in part articulated by the Iranian fans.
Another Fifa regime might have banished the Asian side from the tournament given the treatment of women as well as the story over supplying drones to Russia, and it led to the supporters booing their own national anthem and the players refusing to sing it.
This really was a stand.
It’s impossible to discount the potential effect of this on Carlos Queiroz’s squad, mind. They have been a team playing under immense pressure, as well as the focus of the state.
Some have tried to speak out, or said as much as they could.
All of this unrest would have only been made worse by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand’s concussion, not that his replacement Seyed Hossein Hosseini could have done much about any of the goals.
The one thing that can be said for certain is that this wasn’t a Queiroz defence as we know it. He had previously only conceded seven goals in 10 World Cup games with Portugal and Iran, and kept five clean sheets.
There was no sign of such cohesion here.
That wasn’t England’s concern, though. They didn’t even have to be that adventurous to open Iran up.
This was one of the most notable elements of the game. Despite the size of the scoreline, England were patient and precise rather than expansive or rampant.
It showed why it so helps having Bellingham in the team. This is also why every major club in Europe wants the teenager.
He gives England that extra impetus in midfield, better linking the different parts of the team with his willingness to drive forward. This isn’t to malign Kalvin Phillips, who has been so effective for England, but the Manchester City midfielder does play in a more prosaic way. Bellingham gives Southgate something different, that the team had been missing.
It’s a while since we’ve seen an England midfielder make the sort of run the 19-year-old did, as he powered home Luke Shaw’s fine cross in the manner of a Paul Scholes or Bryan Robson. Comparisons only go so far, though, since Bellingham is very much his own type of player. This was a superb finish.
After that, the game was won. Queiroz’s Iran were never going to have the capacity to step up after having their gameplan rumbled. They just couldn’t put the pressure on, allowing Harry Maguire a forgiving game to find his feet again. He was for a long time reading everything, and initiating everything. It was his pass that started the move for Bellingham.
It was his presence in the box that created the space for Saka’s first goal. While Iran might have complained about some of the contact, it was only Maguire giving back what he could have had a penalty for earlier on.
Saka scored with a thumping volley, the beautiful finish into the roof of the net perhaps trumping Enner Valencia’s header as the best goal of a brief tournament so far. It was in this period when England were at their best, as they sensed Iran might collapse. Raheem Sterling swiftly made it 3-0 from Harry Kane’s ball at the end of another fine move.
It was all too easy by the time Saka slalomed through for the fourth. Sterling set it up but it is possible a decision may have to be made between the two for more testing matches. Saka, on this form, can't be left out and shouldn't be put back to left wing-back. England barely had any defending to do at all here, which maybe explained an element of laxness as Ali Gholizadeh played in a fine reverse ball behind Maguire for Mehdi Taremi to give Iran something to cheer, before hitting a penalty. Marcus Rashford had already scored with his first touch, before setting up Jack Grealish for the sixth. The City attacker added a bit of joy with a celebration for his new mate Finlay Fisher.
It was that kind of game, everything going England's way. That was even after it certainly wasn’t that sort of build-up, nothing going Qatar and Fifa's way.