England vs Iran: History shows why tone-setting victory can be crucial to World Cup 2022 hopes

England vs Iran: History shows why tone-setting victory can be crucial to World Cup 2022 hopes

If Gareth Southgate wants a reminder of the importance of England winning their opening game in Qatar, he need only look back at the last World Cup.

Four years ago, England needed a stoppage-time winner from Harry Kane to edge past Tunisia, ultimately ensuring they could lose to Belgium in their final group match and reach the last-16 in the kinder-looking half of the draw.

It was the first time England had won their opening fixture in five major tournaments, and was followed up by the victory over Croatia at Euro 2020.

The Tunisia result gave Southgate’s side an important element of control in the group and set the tone for their dogged run to the semi-finals.

Iran, England’s opponents on Monday at the Khalifa International Stadium here in Qatar, are statistically the weakest side in Group B, so getting off to a winning start feels key, particularly if Southgate has designs on resting players before the knockouts.

Looking back on the Tunisia game is both a reminder of how dramatically expectations have been raised under Southgate, and how little has really changed in the makeup of the manager’s preferred XI.

Six of Southgate’s side against Tunisia are likely to start on Monday — it would be seven if Kyle Walker had not already ruled himself out — and England begin this tournament attempting to ally fears that they may have already peaked as a squad.

They are winless in six matches on the back of a miserable Nations League campaign, which ended in relegation, and has contributed to a sense that the squad may have gone stale under Southgate’s steady leadership.

There are just seven new faces from the group that lost to Italy in the final of Euro 2020, and even at international level players can grow weary of the same voices.

England shoot some Basketball hoops during a FIFA World Cup 2022 training session in Qatar

England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)
England World Cup 2022 Training Session: (The FA via Getty Images)

Their run in Russia, which felt like such a breakthrough at the time, may come to look even more like an opportunity missed on this stage, not to mention their agonising defeat on penalties to Italy two summers ago. One hope for England is that the unprecedented nature of the tournament and lack of any significant warm-up time will favour squads who are familiar with each other, and leave form as an irrelevance.

There is a strong sense of togetherness in Southgate’s squad and many of their leading players, including Kane, Raheem Sterling and the out-of-form Harry Maguire, are at peak age and experience going into the finals.

Southgate clearly has a squad packed full of talent, but it is imbalanced and top-heavy, leaving the manager facing a constant series of compromises. England’s unconvincing defensive options mean Southgate is likely to favour a back three, at least for the business end of the tournament, but the system automatically leaves one place fewer for his array of attacking players.

Maguire remains trusted by the manager, given his contributions at the last two major tournaments, but the Manchester United defender carried over his dismal domestic form to the national team in England’s last fixture, the 3-3 draw with Germany when he was responsible for two of the visitors’ goals.

Southgate occasionally appears trapped between his instincts for conservatism and the desires of fans.

Southgate’s other defensive options, aside from the comforting presence of John Stones, are also unconvincing, with Eric Dier back in the picture but also lacking form and Ben White untested at this level.

The imbalance of his squad is further reflected by the inclusion of three right-backs and just one naturally left-sided defended in Luke Shaw.

In terms of his big individual selections, Southgate also appears caught between his players’ past performances and current form.

Sterling is one of Southgate’s most trusted senior players and justified the manager’s faith by being the difference in tight games at the Euros. But, like England, the winger goes into the tournament out-of-sorts for Chelsea and attempting to shake the suggestion that his best years are behind him.

Southgate is not short of options to replace the 27-year-old, with Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden in great touch for Arsenal and Manchester City respectively, and the former always impressive in an England shirt. Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and James Maddison make up the array of talent vying for a place either side of Kane.

In midfield too, Southgate has a decision between what he knows, in this case the dependable pairing of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, and unleashing Jude Bellingham. The teenager will likely get the nod on Monday, with Phillips still working his way back to full match sharpness, but there is a sense that the pairing of the Manchester City man with Rice provides more balance, even as supporters clamour for a more adventurous approach.

Southgate occasionally appears trapped between his natural instincts for conservatism and the desires of fans, but the surprise inclusion of Maddison in the squad suggests he may be prepared to be more front-foot.

The Iran game will be an revealing indicator of how Southgate intends to approach a tournament which feels defining for the manager.