England turn on the style and start the World Cup like they mean business, writes Tom Smithies in Doha.
Football’s coming home, then popping straight out again for a little celebration of England’s most emphatic start to a tournament in their history.
The Three Lions devoured Iran with three goals in each half to begin their 2018 World Cup passage in riotous style. The most extraordinary thing is that Harry Kane was not among the scorers in a 6-2 romp, but that could not be of less concern for England manager Gareth Southgate, especially in light of his side’s deeply unimpressive form in recent months.
If Iran could offer very little resistence then England were still breathtaking at times. The fluidity of their offensive play was amply illustrated by the fact that at the 2018 World Cup England scored three goals in open play – here they had five in one game.
It’s possible Iran were affected by the political machinations that swirled around their preparation, with protests in their home country against the government violently repressed and rumours that coach Carlos Qeiroz was under pressure not to pick certain players.
Nor was their cause helped by the crunching injury suffered by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand early in the game from a horrible collision with a teammate – after a very, very long period of treatment, Beiranvand was incredibly allowed to play on, despite the obvious risk of concussion, but moments later was withdrawn and sent to hospital.
England had started brightly, and the disruption could have affected both sides; instead, Southgate’s side turned on the style. The opening goal stemmed from a brilliantly deft series of passes, Luke Shaw’s cross glanced home by Jude Bellingham to make him England’s second youngest scorer of all time.
It was fitting that the Borussia Dortmund wunderkid should open the scoring, for it added glitter to a compelling performance throughout. The midfield is Bellingham’s palace but with minimal fuss he has the ability to cover vast areas of the pitch, tackling, covering, carrying the ball and opening space for the front line.
By halftime England were out of sight, and for all that this is only one performance – against a side with weighty matters on its mind – it was a vibrant, imaginative display as compared with so many of their predecessor’s opening game’s in far too many tournaments.
There was brilliant symbolism too in the fact that Bukayo Saka scored twice and Marcus Rashford added the side’s fifth – the last time either had kicked a ball in a major tournament they missed the penalties that cost England the final of the 2020 Euros final. The racist abuse they suffered then compounded the pain of those misses; this performance went some way to wiping that memory.
The full context of this win won’t be obvious until the group stage is complete, but this was some statement of intent. It wasn’t blemish free and Southgate was right to focus on the lapses in concentration that allowed Iran to score twice – though the first, a lethal finish from Mehdi Taremi, was brilliantly taken. Harry Maguire, hugely impressive until that point, suffered a blow to the head in the process that may have concussion repercussions for England’s next game against the US.
“I didn’t like the end of the game, and we’re going to have to be better than that against the US,” Southgate said of his side’s concession of two goals. “We have to reset, I don’t like games that drift. I can understand the drift in focus as there was so much added time, but it won’t be enough for us to progress in the tournament. We’ve still got a lot to do to qualify.
“We talked to the players in the week about setting the right tone, and it came from the counterpress and the way we used the ball. We have to mix the game up, and this was a good start, a good platform to build on.”
Southgate was too diplomatic to mention the VAR incidents that bookended the game, with Harry Maguire denied a penalty despite being clawed to the floor and Iran granted one for a shirt-tug by John Stones. The lack of consistency was bewildering; luckily for FIFA, England’s performance took the headlines to a better place.