Vindication for Gareth Southgate as England put World Cup 2022 favourites on alert with Iran thrashing

England beat Iran 6-2 in their opening match at the World Cup in Qatar (Getty Images)
England beat Iran 6-2 in their opening match at the World Cup in Qatar (Getty Images)

England were too cowardly to make a statement with an armband against Iran but Gareth Southgate’s bravery was rewarded with a statement performance as his side began the World Cup with a 6-2 dismantling of Iran.

All of Southgate’s big tactical and selection decisions were vindicated at the Khalifa International Stadium, as Jude Bellingham, a Bukayo Saka double, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish earned England a routine victory which puts them firmly in control of Group B.

Given the abjectness of Iran, Wales’ meeting with the USA on Monday night could be decisive but England’s performance will nonetheless put the tournament’s other favourites on alert, and fill the squad with belief after a dismal run of form and a build-up overshadowed by off-field issues.

The only downside for Southgate was the loss of Harry Maguire, who was forced off midway through the second half with a suspected concussion, and is presumably a doubt to face the USA on Friday.

This game was preceded by the farcical row over whether captain Harry Kane would wear a rainbow-coloured armband, and the FA’s ultimate decision to row back under pressure from FIFA was made to look even more hollow by Iran refusing to sing their national anthem in a silent protest at their country’s autocracy.

Kane instead wore FIFA’s own anti-discrimination armband following the FA’s eleventh-hour climbdown, along with six other European countries, in a saga which had no winners.

Southgate, at least, was rewarded for sticking to his principles.

The England manager came into these finals with his side in an alarming rut, and aiming to disprove lingering fears that they have already peaked and missed their chance to win a major tournament.

England looked stale and rudderless in this season’s National League campaign, and the question was whether Southgate could rouse a familiar squad to raise their games on the biggest stage.

Bukayo Saka scored twice for England after starting ahead of Phil Foden (The FA via Getty Images)
Bukayo Saka scored twice for England after starting ahead of Phil Foden (The FA via Getty Images)

There are, of course, far tougher tests to come but they could scarcely have got off to a stronger start against Carlos Quieroz’s Iran, who were supposed to be a well-organised and obdurate opponent.

But by half-time, the game was already won, with England leading 3-0, and Southgate able to start looking ahead to the USA and the chance to become one of the first sides to book their place in the knockouts.

England combined familiar strengths - dangerous set-pieces, speed in transition, link-up between Kane and Sterling - with a new-found confidence and verve on the ball, and they cut through Iran with some fine passing moves.

The introduction of 19-year-old Bellingham, playing in the middle, was a huge factor, and he also promises to add precious goals from midfield after opening the scoring with a centre-forward’s header from Luke Shaw’s cross. It was notable that Kane, who got two assists, did not score, despite pre-tournament suggestions that England are too reliant on the skipper for goals.

Jude Bellingham was given a starting role and the 19-year-old was outstanding (AFP via Getty Images)
Jude Bellingham was given a starting role and the 19-year-old was outstanding (AFP via Getty Images)

Bellingham over Kalvin Phillips was an easy call for Southgate but pleasingly for the coach, his altogether tougher selection decisions came off, too.

There were particular doubts over his faith in Maguire and Sterling, who both came into the game on the back on miserable form at club level and amid suggestions that England needed to move on from the pair’s displays in Russia four years ago and at the European Championship.

Maguire was too much of a handful for Iran in their box and even Quieroz’s side’s highly-physical approach could not entirely subdue him in the early exchanges.

The centre-half was dragged to the floor in what looked a solid penalty claim and hit the side-netting before his downward header set-up Saka to make it 2-0 with a brilliant, if deflected, volley.

The game will not, though, entirely end questions about Maguire’s confidence defending after Mehdi Taremi slipped behind him to make it 4-1 with a spectacular finish. The physical handling Maguire made it slightly strange that Iran were awarded a stoppage-time penalty, after the referee checked his monitor on the VAR’s advice, for a John Stones tug on Morteza Pouraliganji in a crowded box.

It was converted coolly by Taremi to take a touch of gloss off the scoreline.

Gareth Southgate was under scrutiny going into the World Cup after six games without a win (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Gareth Southgate was under scrutiny going into the World Cup after six games without a win (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Sterling also vindicated his inclusion with a volley from Kane’s cross to make it 3-0, while Saka scored his second and England’s fourth with a lovely run and cool finish to underline that Southgate was right to pick him ahead of Rashford, Grealish and Phil Foden.

Southgate has faced criticism for his faith in the wingers, but here was further evidence that they deliver for England in a way their competitors for places have rarely done.

That said, substitute Rashford scored England’s fifth, moments after his introduction, in his first appearance since missing a penalty for England in the Euro 2020 Final defeat to Italy and there was still time for two more subs to combine, as Callum Wilson squared to Jack Grealish to tap home.

It was a start where almost everything went right for England, leaving Southgate facing fewer questions about the actual football, even if the off-field issues are unlikely to quickly be forgotten.