England commence may what may end up as Gareth Southgate’s last tilt at winning a major tournament in Monday’s early afternoon 2022 World Cup match. The national manager has a contract that runs for another two years, but he will surely be judged by how his team performs in Qatar. The former Middlesbrough boss has his admirers - and critics - so the heat will be on as he attempts to cement a legacy for himself in the desert, desperate to avoid the label of ‘nearly man’ that byline writers are surely preparing, given England’s poor form leading into this tournament.
Half of the four-man contingent that Everton have sent to the World Cup - Jordan Pickford and Conor Coady - are in Southgate’s side; the former as England’s undisputed number one (media speculation aside), whereas the on-loan Wolverhampton Wanderers defender has only an outside chance of making an appearance. Coady saw no action during Euro 2020 and played only the easiest games during qualification for Qatar, against San Marino and Andorra. The centre back’s last outing for the Three Lions was back in June during a UEFA Nations League loss to Hungary. He hasn’t featured in any of the five matches since; though given the team failed to win any of those games, ironically Coady’s chances of selection may have increased simply by not being involved.
First up for Southgate’s men are Iran, widely considered to be the weakest team in Group B. Helmed by former Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz, now in his second spell as manager of the Middle Eastern outfit, the Iranians are sure to be under a lot of scrutiny during the tournament, given the political unrest that’s been sweeping the country recently. Queiroz is a lucky man to be in Qatar at all, considering his attempts to lead Colombia and Egypt there both ended in failure: the Iranians bizarrely fired Dragan Skovic, who has overseen a successful qualification campaign, in order to reappoint Queiroz, who was national boss between 2011-2019.
Team Melli will set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, look to pack the midfield and be hard to play through, ostensibly hitting opponents on the counter, with wide man Mehdi Taremi of FC Porto being the most likely danger. Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun will lead the line, if he has recovered sufficiently from an injury that has kept him sidelined since September. They are not prolific in attack, though a 1-0 win over Uruguay, followed by a 1-1 draw against Senegal prove they are more than capable of getting results against on-paper superior teams.
How England set up will be interesting to see. Southgate traditionally favours a back three, which likely boosts Coady’s chances of involvement, but will the boss stick to those players who have delivered for him in the past, or trust those relatively new to the squad? The team will be heavily favoured to overpower Iran, despite finding goals tough to come by recently. Everton man Pickford will likely be a bystander for long stretches as England command possession and he will need to maintain his concentration levels accordingly to avoid potential embarrassment. His famed long distribution is unlikely to be a factor, seeing as there is unlikely to be much space behind a low-block Iranian defence.
I’m expecting an England win, but it’s possible this may be a nervier affair than most anticipate.