Gareth Southgate knew Iran would go deep and drilled, the result of a decade of clever training from Carlos Queiroz, and England’s solution was to stretch Iran’s defensive curtain until let it tear to the seams.
Iran’s 5-4-1 crowded the center of the pitch and England’s response was a system designed for wide penetration. With the ball, England formed a well-balanced 4-3-3 that created devastating triangles between full-backs, wingers and No.8s on either side, and it left an Iranian defense drawn and discarded at halftime.
Wingers Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling floated and drifted between the vertical and horizontal lines, coming in from the sides to make room for full-backs Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier to advance around the tips of the Iranian line, while the midfield push Mason Mount pitch 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 brought the ball out from a tight spot near the flag from the right corner and sent it back to their centre-halves. From there, Harry Maguire drew in a midfield marshal just enough to clear a path, before firing a line-breaking ball to Mount as a back-to-goal receiver, and England were in. Mount hit Sterling who fed Shaw on the straddle, and Bellingham converted Shaw’s cross with a deftly placed header for 1-0.
If that was the England midfield base for the rest of the tournament – it’s hard to imagine Kalvin Phillips replacing Bellingham anytime soon – then it was a promising sight. Rice was England’s sure-fire seamstress as Bellingham tried to weave bolder patterns. The teenager completed five line breaks in 10 minutes and carried the distinct air of an essential part of the England machine.
That was Bellingham’s advantage, a box-to-box midfielder playing as an eight who gives England useful tactical flexibility. This meant that with the ball they could push in the positive 4-3-3 form with high full-backs and wingers released; and without the ball, which was admittedly rare, Bellingham diligently backtracked to assist Rice and made a 4-2-3-1.
England’s attacking hubs functioned around their centrepiece, Harry Kane, who worked with his back to goal to absorb Iran’s defensive blows. Kane might have been upset not to score himself, but he was involved in three of England’s five games and completed the enthusiastic legs around him.
Sterling was off the wing again for England’s fourth goal, catching Shaw’s header before turning into the Iranian defence. He found Saka who cut inside and scored his second of the game, but what was remarkable was seeing both Mount and Bellingham in the box screaming for the pass and a chance to score them- same.
Using two truly attacking midfielders hasn’t been a feature of Southgate’s English plan in recent years, not since Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard’s double No8 at the 2018 World Cup, but even then they came with the protection of a rear five. Yes, it was a performance against weaker Group D opponents England, but perhaps it was an indication that Southgate is ready to gently lower the handbrake at this World Cup, if not release it completely.
It is perhaps a decision dictated to Southgate by the quality of its forward-thinking players and particularly by Bellingham, whose dynamism all over the pitch begs to be left unchecked. It was the 19-year-old’s late pass that freed Callum Wilson that helped Jack Grealish for England’s sixth, and it left the impression that Bellingham could well be key to this World Cup cause , both for his tactical flexibility and his natural gift.