It took Harry Kane’s long-range strike to beat Tunisia in England’s World Cup final. This time, it was sealed before half time, Iran ran away in a way that shows the new growth of Gareth Southgate’s national team.
The meeting with Iran, who have lost only twice in their previous 21 matches, was said to be a difficult first game for a team that was not well prepared for the tournament. Instead, they used it lightly. Six goals is a close start.
This happened in England.
The starting line-up was familiar, with just two changes from the side that faced Italy in last year’s Euro final, but the changes have changed, with Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka adding youthful flair and setting the tone for an impressive display in England.
It helped, of course, that there was also a change in shape, with Southgate switching from a back five to a back four, a sign of England’s attacking intent before the ball was even thrown and one allowed him to include extras in the middle.
The midfielder was a 14-year-old student of Birmingham City who was promising at the start of the last World Cup but early evidence suggests that Bellingham, who is now one of the most exciting players in Europe with Borussia Dortmund, will play a major role in the game. .
The 19-year-old was a standout, scoring his first goal for England with a powerful header from Luke Shaw’s cross in the 35th minute, and he contributed to everything England did.
He was there in preparation for England’s third leg, carrying the ball forward, as he often does, and picking out Harry Kane to deliver a cross for Raheem Sterling to finish from close range.
Bellingham was there for the sixth, too, his through ball from Marcus Rashford’s play to send Callum Wilson soaring down the right-hand side to set up Jack Grealish for a close finish.
With Declan Rice standing behind him in midfield, Bellingham’s main responsibility was to get England playing and that’s what he did. Ninety-two of his 95 passes found a teammate. Neither player completed another game.
Bellingham appeared almost everywhere in Iran’s half, combining well, at different times, with Saka, Mason Mount, Sterling and Kane, as well as England’s substitutes, providing a bridge between midfield and attack that England often lacked in the past.
The youngster was also flawless, faced challenges with Rice in the middle of the game, chased the defenders up, and ensured that England’s control, except for the end of the second half, was enough.
Saka, a 21-year-old veteran, was also impressive, the Arsenal forward justifying his inclusion in emphatic style when he scored twice in his first England game.
His first, a first-time header from Harry Maguire’s low header, showed his technical ability. His second, sent on after cutting inside and delaying Sterling’s shot, was also well taken.
Phil Foden may have regretted missing the start but Saka chose form and tormented Iran from the start, moving from the right and relying on the ball to disrupt their five-man defense and create space for his team-mates to exploit.
Along with that youthful energy were examples of what worked well for England at the last World Cup.
Southgate’s side scored nine goals in the game, setting a World Cup record, and, with Kieran Trippier still on the dead ball, the threat remained.
Saka’s first goal came from Trippier’s corner which was headed in by Maguire as the Manchester United centre-back hit the crossbar before Trippier’s goal.
It was in an open game, however, that England caused problems for Iran and this change bodes well for a side looking to build on their progress in the last two games in Qatar.
Southgate has been talking about the need for a solid defense more than anything else in international football but the fans were craving more and England, finally, delivered.
Of course, Iran has not offered much in the way of protest. England will face a much tougher test than this. But the margin of victory came from England’s better performance than that of their opponents. “Getting six is great no matter who you’re playing against,” as Bellingham said later. Iran have scored just six goals in their previous 10 games combined.
Southgate was keen to keep his feet on the ground after that, messing up the dip that allowed Iran to pull two goals back in the second half.
But this was the day of judgment for him. In Bellingham and Saka, he was rewarded for his youthful confidence. Maguire, meanwhile, who offered support and acted decisively before forcing him to leave, also blessed his faith.
The decision to change formation inspired everything and there was plenty of good for Southgate as his replacements contributed, Rashford and Grealish among the goalscorers and Wilson set up one.
It all adds up to a side of England that looks different. The big challenges are yet to come. But, thanks to the bravery of Bellingham, Saka and Southgate, England have started this World Cup in a very good way, and maybe even a template for what is to come.