Carlos Queiroz had seemingly made the same old instructions to his Iranian players for Monday’s World Cup opener against England: Stay well-organized off the ball and make the most of every chance that comes your way.
After all, that was the kind of approach that the Portuguese thoroughly adopted during his previous eight-year spell in charge, whether it was an Asian Cup group game against Iraq or a faceoff with international heavyweights in the World Cup finals.
The gameplan delivered, to a great extent, against Argentina, Spain, and Portugal as Iran, despite managing only a single points in the three matches, was only undone by moments of brilliance produced by world-class players in Lionel Messi and Ricardo Quaresma.
That’s how the former No. 2 to Sir Alex Ferguson won the hearts of millions of Iranians and when the country’s Football Federation replaced Dragan Skocic, who had steered Iran to the World Cup berth in emphatic fashion, with the Portuguese in September, few questioned the logic behind the decision.
And the tactics worked out for the first 35 minutes of Monday’s game as England, which enjoyed some 70 percent of the ball possession, went close only through a Harry Maguire’s header coming off the woodwork on a corner kick.
But when Jude Bellingham broke the deadlock for Gareth Southgate’s men, it turned into an absolute debacle for Queiroz and his side as the 6-2 rout marked Iran’s worst defeat in six World Cup participations.
Queiroz might be partially right to put the blame on the ongoing off-field issues surrounding his squad, sparked by the protests in Iran and unfortunately dragged onto the stands at the Khalifa International Stadium.
“To those who come to disturb the team with the issues that are not only about the football opinions, they’re not welcome because our boys, they’re just simple football boys,” Queiroz told a post-match press conference.
“Let the kids play the game. Because this is what they’re looking for. They wanted to represent the country, to represent the people, as any other national team that are here.”
All those comments would do little to ease the criticism the Portuguese gets for his unexpected starting XI and formation.
Unlike any other match during his time on Iran’s bench, Queiroz opted for a deep-lying back five, four men in the midfield, and Mehdi Taremi as the lone striker.
Shoja Khalilzadeh and Hossein Kan’anizadegan were the first-choice center-half partnership under Skocic, playing an integral part to Iran’s campaign at the Asian qualifiers.
The two also did a great job in keeping a formidable Uruguayan frontline at bay in a one-goal warmup victory on Queiroz’s return to the role.
The manager, however, benched both defenders and gave a rare start to Morteza Pouraliganji and Majid Hosseini, who had excelled four years ago in Russia, as well as Rouzbeh Cheshmi – most comfortable as a holding midfielder – in a back three.
Hossieni and left-back Milad Mohammadi, who was substituted at halftime, were arguably Iran’s worst performers of the night and were left hapless in dealing with the constant threat posed by Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
Ali Karimi had last played for the national team two years ago – a cameo appearance in a friendly against Bosnia – but was still preferred to Saeed Ezzatollahi and Vahid Amiri in the middle of the park, before he was also taken off at the break.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Ehsan Hajsafi clearly looked clueless going forward down the flanks, which again indicated Queiroz’s lack of a plan B when his team concedes the first goal.
Still, the show must go on as Iran has two games against relatively weaker opponents in Wales and USA, which played to a 1-1 draw later in the day, to keep its shot at a top-two finish in the group alive.
To that end, Queiroz may be forced to back down from his old principles and give his troops the order to attack and go for a more adventurous type of football.
A return to the 4-3-3 formation must be the quick solution, while Saman Qoddous, Mehdi Torabi and Ali Qolizadeh will offer the creativity and technical flair, which Iran desperately cried out for against England, up front.
Taremi could even be moved to the flanks to make room for Sardar Azmoun, who looked lively when he came on against England, to add his scoring touch to the mix.
Ramin Rezaeian – called up by the Portuguese for the international duty after being totally ignored by the former manager – could also be a better choice for the right fullback position, given his proven ability in taking the set-pieces.
All the changes and decisions will depend on how the Portuguese manager is willing to save his reputation as the savior of Team Melli, but one thing is for sure: Iran has no choice but to fight for maximum points against Wales and USA.