England are showing they have a bit more up their sleeves, even if not under the One Love armbands.
The effervescent Jude Bellingham sparked a 6-2 rout of Iran, to signal an evolution for the team, and to ensure that everything flowed with encouraging fluidity on the pitch.
The problems of the League of Nations have been forgotten, rendered irrelevant. It may be far too early to talk about winning this World Cup, given the poverty of a crisis-ridden Iran, but Gareth Southgate’s side have now announced their bid with the best opening win in the England. That’s why players have never cared about recent results – and they’ve clearly had fun here. Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka certainly had a better time than their last tournament game, both showing why they should be kept in the squad, with the Arsenal man illustrating why he should be kept up front.
Meanwhile, the problems of Fifa and Qatar only continue. It was the third day in a row where the many off-pitch issues of this wacky World Cup dominated the agenda. Fifa’s stubborn threat to punish teams with sporting sanctions for the OneLove armband meant the Football Association backed down, leading Harry Kane to wear the bland ‘No Discrimination’ armband, but did nothing. much more fuss on the whole topic. The governing body could perhaps have paid more attention to its ticketing system, given the breakdown of the complicated entry app for so many supporters. It was just another logistical problem in this tournament to go along with all the more serious concerns, which were in part voiced by the Iranian fans.
Another Fifa regime might have banned the Asian team from the tournament given the treatment of women as well as the history of supplying drones to Russia, and it led to fans booing their own national anthem and the players to refuse to sing it.
It really was a stand.
It’s impossible to ignore the potential effect of this on Carlos Queiroz’s side, mind you. They have been a team playing under immense pressure, as well as the target of the state.
Some tried to speak out or said as much as they could.
All that trouble would have only been made worse by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand’s concussion, not that his replacement Seyed Hossein Hosseini could have done much for any of the goals.
The only thing that can be said for sure is that it was not a Queiroz defense as we know it. He previously conceded just seven goals in 10 World Cup games for Portugal and Iran, and kept five clean sheets.
There was no sign of such cohesion here.
That was not England’s concern, however. They didn’t even have to be so adventurous to open up Iran.
It 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 frantic.
It showed why having Bellingham in the team is so useful. It’s also why every big club in Europe wants the teenager.
He gives England that extra boost in midfield, better connecting the different parts of the team with his drive forward. This is not to denigrate Kalvin Phillips, who has been so effective for England, but the Manchester City midfielder is playing more businesslike. Bellingham gives Southgate something different the team had been missing.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen an England midfielder make the kind of run the 19-year-old did, as he powered home Luke Shaw’s handsome cross like a Paul Scholes or Bryan Robson. The comparisons don’t go that far, however, since Bellingham is very much his own type of player. It was a great finish.
After that, the game was won. Queiroz’s Iran would never have the ability to step in after their game plan rumbled. They just couldn’t put the pressure on, allowing Harry Maguire a lenient game to find his feet. He has read everything for a long time, initiated everything. It was his pass that sparked 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 who returned what he might have gotten a penalty for earlier.
Saka scored with a hard-hitting volley, the fine finish in the roof of the net trumping perhaps Enner Valencia’s header as the best goal of a brief tournament so far. It was during this time when England were at their best, as they felt Iran might collapse. Raheem Sterling quickly made it 3-0 on the ball from Harry Kane at the end of another fine move.
It was too easy when Saka slalomed for fourth. Sterling set him up, but it’s possible a decision will have to be made between the two for more Test matches. Saka, on this form, cannot be left out and must not be put back at left-back. England had hardly any defense to do here which perhaps explained an element of laxity as Ali Gholizadeh played in a nice reverse ball behind Maguire for Mehdi Taremi to give Iran something to cheer for, before taking a penalty. Marcus Rashford had already scored with his first touch, before setting up Jack Grealish for the sixth. The City striker added some cheer with a celebration for his new mate Finlay Fisher.
It was that kind of game, everything was going England’s way. It was even after that it was definitely not that kind of build, nothing goes the way of Qatar and Fifa.