In this analysis piece by Rob Styles we look at how England dismantled the Iran low block defensive shape in a comprehensive display to score 6 in their first group game of the 2022 World Cup. Breaking down a low block is never easy and takes patience to wait for the right opportunities to present themselves. Now let’s look at how England did it..
After much discussion about how they would set up, and how Southgate would fit his best players into the team, England lined up in a 4-3-3, the formation which has brough great success to both Manchester City and Liverpool over the past number of years. The major talking point would be over the makeup of the midfield.
Southgate remained loyal to one of his trusted players, and started Mason Mount as an 8, and the more advanced of the 2. Bellingham playing as a more balanced 8, dropping in beside Rice when needed, but comfortable going forward. Finally, a relatively narrow front three or Sterling, Kane and Saka, allowing the fullbacks to provide width on both sides.
Jude Bellingham, for me, was the standout player for England against Iran. Starting in the World Cup as a 19-year-old in the heart of the England midfield, regardless of his impressive C.V. prior to the tournament, it would have been expected, and acceptable, to have a subdued game, and feel your way into it. On the contrary, Bellingham has immense. On both sides of the ball, he was dominant. Defensively, he showed his athleticism and bravery to win challenges, but also to provide balance alongside Rice and the more advanced Mount in the England midfield. In possession, however, Bellingham added a new dimension to England’s traditionally defensive minded midfield under Southgate. He consistently found spaces between the lines and received the ball under pressure before escaping. His range of passing to find his forward players was impressive, particularly his pre-assist for the Grealish goal, where he breaks free in midfield and plays a pass forward under pressure.
Bellingham’s goal summed up his performance in the game. Smart positioning to balance play in beside Rice and Mount, a delayed but purposeful run from deep into the box, and a technically brilliant header to open the scoring.
Overall, Bellingham looks to have added an extra gear to the England midfield. The test for Southgate now is maintain the system that allows him to flourish, rather than revert back to a more defensive one where he will be shackled beside Rice.
Within a few minutes of kick off, England were setting up a set piece, which is a familiar sight to anyone who has watched a Gareth Southgate England side. It’s almost certainly an indication of what we will see over the course of the tournament. Trippier and Shaw provided excellent deliveries from the corners, and the movement in the central areas to free one of Maguire and Stones was effective against a poor Iranian defence. England should have had an early penalty when Maguire was manhandled to the ground, but overall their physicality allowed them to dominate. Saka’s goal, assisted by a knock down header from Maguire, showed the danger from the 2nd contact, and will be important when England face more accomplished defenders. Maguire has scored 7 international goals, 6 with his head. This shows how important a cog he is in the attacking output of the team, and provides a glimpse into why his selection was never in doubt, despite a poor season with Manchester United. However, in this game, England were happy to mix up their delivery, and play quick free kicks looking to catch Iran by surprise. England will need a level of unpredictability when their physical profile is matched or exceeded by competent defenders at this level.
Lines Breaking Passes
A feature of the game was Iran defending in a low block and England circulating the ball, looking for their breakthrough. England were very effective, however, at playing line breaking passes, allowing their 8s and wide players to receive the ball beyond the initial line of pressure. A good example of this is in the buildup to the first goal, where the ball goes back and forth between Maguire and Stones, before Maguire is able to find a line breaking pass to Mount. This instantly increases the tempo of the game, with a combination wide before the cross for Bellingham to score.
The ability to find these passes to the more technical players ahead will prove crucial over the course of the tournament from England. Introducing stats to this area, a packing score shows how many players were removed by a pass. Maguire’s pass has a score of 5, meaning 5 players were unable to effect the game following this action.
Another area of note in the game was the English dominance in the wide areas. While the delivery from Trippie rans Shaw was impressive throughout the game, it was the movement and rotations from the wide players and fullbacks which caused Iran an issue. On the right side, Saka and Trippier would alternate drifting centrally, occupying their fullbacks, and leaving the other in space. Saka’s 2nd goal came from him receiving the ball, isolating the fullback, and standing him up 1v1.
On the left however, the rotation was a bit more sophisticated, and involved Mount or Rice. Shaw was happy to play high and wide consistently, with Sterling playing inside, close to Kane. Sterling often would drop into the space behind midfield, occupying the space you’d expect Mount to operate in. Rice would drop into the left back position, allowing Mount to take his position off Shaw and Sterling, either staying high, or dropping over to the right, pushing Bellingham on. This gave the player on the ball an abundance of passing options.
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