England kicked off their 2022 World Cup campaign in style as they beat Iran in a 6-2 thrashing thanks to a brace from Bukayo Saka and efforts from Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish.
Bellingham opened the scoring with his first England goal in the 35th minute while Sterling and Saka helped Gareth Southgate’s side establish a comfortable 3-0 lead before half-time.
Saka produced a brilliant individual effort to take England further out of sight just past the hour mark before Mehdi Taremi netted a consolation for Iran, but substitutes Rashford and Grealish put the gloss on the Three Lions’ Group B opener despite a stoppage-time penalty from Taremi.
1. England make a football statement, Iran make a political one
A day which began with a row about anti-discrimination One Love armbands as England sought to make a political statement ended with Gareth Southgate’s side making a footballing one as they swept to a superb victory. Amid the threat of a yellow card for captain Harry Kane due to FIFA refusing to grant special dispensation to the seven nations planning to wear the armband, England dropped the gesture just three hours before kickoff.
The row did little to affect England’s performance, however, nor did a 10-minute delay as Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand suffered concussion only to try to carry on before initiating his own substitution in a bizarre and confused demonstration of the supposed protocols. Three goals in an 11-minute blitz made what looked an awkward-looking fixture on paper a relative stroll here at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Although England took a knee before kickoff in a continuation of the anti-racism message they sent at last summer’s delayed European Championship. The Iran players, meanwhile, did not sing along to their national anthem before the match. While no one from their camp has confirmed the reason, it comes amid more than two months of protests in Iran, sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman while in custody of the country’s morality police, which has created one of the boldest challenges to the nation’s clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
2. Bellingham justifies the hype to give England hope
The biggest development in his England team since last year’s run to the Euro 2020 final is the emergence of Jude Bellingham, a central midfielder able to add dynamism and ingenuity in an area of the pitch England have lacked for years. There was, consequently, a lot of expectation on the 19-year-old, making only his ninth international start and on Monday becoming the third-youngest man to start a World Cup match for England.
It could hardly have gone better. Bellingham rose expertly to steer a superb header past Luke Shaw for the opening goal after 35 minutes, the apotheosis of a first half in which he completed all 40 of his attempted passes, 10 of which came in the final third.
That goal meant he became the first player born in this century to score at World Cup. Bellingham was at the heart of England’s third goal, driving forward and finding Kane, who in turn set up Raheem Sterling to finish first-time at the near post.
Bellingham’s intelligent use of the ball already looks integral to giving England’s attacking players the sort of service they can thrive from. There is a long way to go but this was a hugely promising start — and no doubt caught the eye of the top clubs eyeing up a move for the Borussia Dortmund star, including Liverpool, Manchester City and Real Madrid.
3. Change of system sees England put best foot forward
The debate over England manager Gareth Southgate is this: when he plays a back three, England are too cautious, but when they play with a back four England are generally more attacking. Southgate’s view is informed by England’s habitual tournament failures prior to his appointment in 2016 — losing the ball in midfield, being too predictable in open play to name but two — and he often prefers the safety of an extra central defender to help offset these limitations.
But the growing argument is that this group of players is talented enough to be trusted to play a more expansive style without the inherent caution, and the deployment of England in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape here rather than the 3-4-3 used in previous games was the right call as Southgate’s side brimmed with flair and invention.
A compact and well-drilled Iranian side, albeit one overtly focused on defending until the game was lost, simply could not cope and the depth of attacking talent Southgate has at his disposal was exemplified by substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish both finding the net.
There were still a few defensive issues — Mehdi Taremi scored a fine consolation goal on 65 minutes before adding a second deep in stoppage time for a penalty awarded on VAR review — but the clamour for Southgate to take the handbrake off will only grow after this.
Player ratings (1 = worst, 10 = best)
England: Pickford 7, Trippier 7, Stones 7, Maguire 7, Shaw 7, Bellingham 9, Rice 7, Mount 8, Saka 9, Kane 8, Sterling 8.
Subs: Dier 7, Rashford 7, Grealish 7, Foden 7, Wilson 7.
Iran: Beiranvand 5, Moharrami 4, Pouraliganji 4, Cheshmi 4, Hosseini 4, Mohammadi 4, Jahanbakhsh 5, Nourollahi 5, Karimi 5, Hajsafi 5, Taremi 6.
Subs: Hosseini 4, Ezatolahi 5, Gholizadeh 5, Toradi 5, Azmoun 5.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Jude Bellingham
Set the tone for a commanding display with the opening goal and was at the heart of much of England’s best play.
WORST: Hossein Hosseini
Difficult to come in after Beiranvand suffered a concussion, but he was beaten far too easily on more than one occasion.
Highlights and notable moments
When England score goals at a World Cup, there is only one place to go to for the wildest fan reaction: BOXPARK Croydon. This is how the supporters there celebrated Jude Bellingham’s 35th-minute opener.
And the revellers barely had time to get fresh pints poured before England scored two more goals to go in 3-0 at half-time.
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Jude Bellingham became the first player born in this century to score at a World Cup.
At 19 years and 145 days of age, Bellingham is the third-youngest scorer for England at a World Cup. Michael Owen scored two goals at the 1998 World Cup aged 18 years, 191 days, and 18 years, 198 days.
At 21 years and 77 days old, Bukayo Saka became the youngest England player with a multi-goal game at a World Cup.
This was the first time that England had scored three goals in a FIFA World Cup opener since 1982, and the first time they scored three goals in the first half of an opener.
Marcus Rashford became only the fourth substitute to score for England at a World Cup and the first since Steven Gerrard vs. Sweden in 2006.
Harry Kane became the first English player to record two assists in a World Cup match since David Beckham vs. Trinidad & Tobago in 2006.
England’s six goals scored vs. Iran were the joint-most they have ever scored in a FIFA World Cup match, along with the six they netted in the 6-1 win over Panama in 2018.
England join Germany as the only teams in the past 30 years of the World Cup to score six or more goals in their opening match. Germany in 2002 defeated Saudi Arabia 8-0 in match No. 1 en route to finishing as losing finalists.