ESPN – DOHA, It was an approach that made sense. And under the ultra-pragmatic Carlos Queiroz, Iran were never going to lock horns with England any other way.
Ultimately, an overly-conservative system was to backfire as Team Melli fell to a heavy 6-2 defeat to England in their Group B opener at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
It did not help that Iran lost first-choice goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, the man who impressed greatly at the last World Cup to the point he eventually earned a move to Europe, just ten minutes into the contest following an awful collision with a teammate.
Nonetheless, it was clear when six defenders were named in Queiroz’s starting XI — a five-man defence plus the versatile Ehsan Hajsafi deployed at left wing — what the game plan was.
So for Iran to have been two down at the break despite a defensive approach, and ultimately conceded six, suggests it did not quite go according to plan.
So, with Iran getting their campaign off to a torrid start, is this a sign that more disappointment will follow in the next two games?
Firstly, the emotional stress weighing on the team’s mind cannot be underestimated.
With the political situation back home increasingly tense with each passing day, the players have been expected to take a stand against the government — and have been subsequently vilified for not openly speaking out against the regime, with their silence perceived by many as support.
Captain Hajsafi was the first to directly address the protests in Iran on the eve of Team Melli’s clash with Iran, before the players made a statement by opting not to sing their national anthem ahead of kickoff. Yet, it did not abstain some of them from being jeered during the game.
Mentally, this will have contributed to the nervy display the Iranians produced against the Three Lions.
Then there is also the belief that the England tie was always going to be the one that Team Melli were least likely to get a result from. Whether it was a narrow 1-0 defeat or the 6-2 loss that ultimately eventuated, the net result would still have been zero points.
And Queiroz’s team selection suggests that this was also playing on his mind, as he refrained from risking star striker Sardar Azmoun — under an injury cloud — from the start, while also withdrawing key winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh at halftime when the game already looked lost.
Should Iran now go on to beat Wales and United States, it should be enough for them to qualify for the next round unless in the event of an unlikely three-way tie on six points — which would then bring goal difference into play.
So while the margin of defeat on Monday was chastening, the result was far from disastrous.
What Iran must do now is show more adventure — and belief in themselves — against Wales, and then United States.
They are far from a team just in Qatar to make up the numbers. Mehdi Taremi, who already has five goals in the UEFA Champions League this season alone, proved just that as he gave the England defence plenty to worry about en route to bagging two goals.
Throw in Jahanbakhsh, Azmoun and maybe even Saman Ghoddos, Karim Ansarifard and Mehdi Torabi and Iran have an attack that will pose all sorts of problems for their next two opponents.
After all his years of managerial experience, Queiroz will not change his pragmatic ways — and that is fine. Against a top team like England, it was perhaps the savviest plan to be on the back foot even if it might have backfired.
But with their World Cup prospects now on the line, rather than show Wales and United States too much respect, Team Melli now need to show some belief in themselves by taking the game to these opponents in their next two outings.
“All the focus is on the next game. We’ve already spoken with the boys,” Jahanbakhsh told ESPN, in the immediate aftermath to the loss to England.
“This game is gone for us. We’ve already spoken with the boys,” Jahanbakhsh told ESPN, in the immediate aftermath of the loss to England.
“All the focus is now on the next game and hopefully we’re going to win.”
The first game is indeed over for Iran. But their campaign is far from — provided they show more adventure, endeavour and belief against Wales and then United States.