Southgate's rare show of intent sparks impressive opening win in his defining tournament

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Progress – that's the word probably most suitable to describe Gareth Southgate's tenure as England manager.

His impact in the role is undeniable whether you consider major tournament performances or simply the fact he's brought dignity to the position and his team.

For all Southgate has achieved since his 2016 appointment, he remains a regular target of pelters from fans and the media.

England's Nations League relegation earlier this season didn't help, but the assumption is a poor performance at the World Cup will see his reign end – he even addressed it directly before the World Cup, insisting he wasn't so "arrogant" to think he's invincible.

But on the evidence of their Group B opener at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday, this is every inch an England side capable of giving Southgate his defining tournament, as the Three Lions hammered Iran 6-2.

It was easy to forget in the build-up that a football match was actually scheduled to be played, though. The focus was almost on anything but the football.

For Iran, all eyes were peeled to see if the team would make any grand statements against the country's oppressive regime following two months of protests against gender discrimination on the other side of the Persian Gulf.

The players' silence during their national anthem spoke volumes, while supporters widely jeered – although difficult to clarify, this was presumably an act of defiance against the country rather than a show of displeasure towards the players.

England were tackling their own moral issues. They vowed to take the knee and reiterated their commitment to wearing the OneLove armband in a stance against discrimination, only to backtrack on the latter when it emerged doing so would've resulted in an instant booking for Harry Kane.

While you could understand England's U-turn with regards to sporting sanctions, the fact they seemed to wilt under the pressure of a single yellow card made them look rather meek.

But that was about as far as it went in terms of meekness, as England went on to produce an utterly ruthless display on the pitch once the football actually started.

The Three Lions may have struggled for fluency in the opening stages, but chances still flowed: Harry Maguire and Mason Mount both found the side-netting, and the former was also denied by the crossbar with a towering header.

Iran, who like their coach are well known for being solid rather than spectacular, had great difficulty getting out of their own half and their solidity only lasted so long.

England pressed high and broke quickly, with Jude Bellingham – a popular choice in the starting XI – offering real drive and imagination from midfield, an area of the pitch Southgate's been routinely criticised for picking pragmatic pairings in.

Bellingham's performances were among the few positives from England's most recent Nations League campaign, and he was arguably only starting due to Kalvin Phillips' lack of game time this season.

However, he provided further justification for his selection as he opened the scoring, making a trademark late run into the box and meeting Luke Shaw's cross with a fine header that looped into the top-right corner.

Bukayo Saka was another not exactly guaranteed to start, but he followed Bellingham's lead with a wonderful volley to make it 2-0. A slight deflection took away some of the gloss, but it put England in complete control nonetheless.

Their grip on the contest got even stronger on the stroke of half-time – another excellent Bellingham run stretched the Iran defence before he fed Kane, who played an inch-perfect cross for Raheem Sterling to prod home.

Saka's excellent solo second goal may have been followed by a powerful Mehdi Taremi strike, but England's attacking ruthlessness came to the fore again as Kane played in Marcus Rashford – on for a matter of seconds at that point – and he showed admirable composure to beat his man and slot home, with fellow substitute Jack Grealish getting the sixth late on.

Taremi's penalty with the last kick of the game did little to detract from England's excellence.

Thrashing Iran may not necessarily confirm England's status as a contender, but after a difficult few months on the pitch for the Three Lions, playing with such freedom and intent against a team renowned for being obdurate is at the least a very positive step.

Obviously, for Southgate to maintain the theme of progress across his England tenure at this World Cup, they strictly need to win it after reaching the semis of Russia 2018 and the final of Euro 2020.

At this point, Southgate has been England's nearly-man as much as an instigator of their return to international football's top table, but this performance gives hope to the idea his crowning achievement could yet be just around the corner.