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England have made major World Cup statement and the elements may finally be in their favour

Tempers flare between Iran's Morteza Pouraliganji and England's Luke Shaw during the FIFA World Cup Group B match at the Khalifa International Stadium, Doha. Picture date: Monday November 21, 2022.© PA


England have never made such an emphatic statement in the first week of a World Cup.

We must go back to Spain in 1982, and an opening group-game win over France, to see an England side playing with such confidence and excellence from the first whistle.

It is not just that England won, but how they did it that was so impressive and refreshing for their supporters.

Let’s not overlook how outstandingly Gareth Southgate’s side dealt with the pressure of the occasion to outclass an Iran team that recently beat Uruguay and drew with Senegal.

Those who suggest these games are as easy as England made it look are failing to appreciate the emotional baggage every player carries into the first game of the World Cup, and that every game has the potential to be tough.

Imagine the reaction if Brazil or Argentina score six in their opening game. No one would be talking about the quality of the opposition.

They would be talking about how tasty the pre-tournament favourites look and purring over how brilliantly taken some of the goals were. The rest of the world would see a force to be reckoned with.

For as long as I can remember watching the World Cup that has been the case. We have always watched this competition expecting to be thrilled by the attacking football of the South American sides.

There have been plenty of other occasions when a nation has come flying out of the blocks playing with dominance and panache.

As a schoolboy, I remember being excited by the Denmark side of 1986, the team with Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer putting six past Uruguay and beating West Germany in the group phase.

​They were the team everyone wanted to watch and left a lasting impression for the next generation, spoken about more glowingly than sides who went further in that World Cup.

The biggest compliment that can be paid to Southgate’s side is they took all the flair we have seen in the Premier League, or in Jude Bellingham’s case Bundesliga, and produced where and when it matters.

Of course, no sooner had Jack Grealish tapped in the sixth goal and you could already hear the cynics argue this was ‘only Iran’. That is a discredited perspective.

History shows how difficult it can be lining up against an opponent with no ambition beyond packing the defence, especially for England.

I’ve been there – most memorably against Algeria in South Africa in 2010 – and it is easy for players to lose patience and confidence when they feel they are already playing the clock after 10 minutes.

We saw Iran’s game-plan in those early moments. They wanted to unsettle, disrupt and agitate England to stop any kind of rhythm. They had all their men behind the ball and must have spent all those months since the World Cup draw rehearsing their game-plan – defend, defend and counter-attack.

They failed because Southgate and his coaching team clearly had his players well prepared to deal with those tactics, especially with how advanced the full-backs were allowed to push on.

That led to the first goal for Bellingham from Luke Shaw’s cross.

The deliveries from wide positions were outstanding and if England continue to produce such quality it is going to make it difficult for any side that try to sit deep against them.

England also have a serious weapon in the form of set-pieces. They utilised corners and free-kicks better than any other country in Russia four years ago and from the early stages yesterday you could see the training-ground drills in operation again.

Harry Maguire should have had a penalty – it was a joke that was not given while Iran’s was to give the score a more flattering look in injury-time – and it led to Bukayo Saka doubling the lead.

But the most promising feature of the victory for England was the energy they played with, particularly in the first half.

Tournament games are often slow and strategic – the opposite to what English players are accustomed to in domestic games. To impose pace and rhythm is tricky, even against the so-called ‘weaker teams’. Not this time.

Given how sharp and fit England looked, the optimism that a mid-season World Cup would benefit Premier League players is justified. There are many justified arguments against the World Cup happening right now, and why it should not be held in Qatar.

But there is no denying England might have an advantage if they can bring the physicality of Premier League football to the international stage. Usually, that has been impossible.

The England teams I played for under Sven-Goran Eriksson could never bring the same intensity at the end of a long, gruelling season that we had in qualifying campaigns for the World Cup and Euros. Fabio Capello suffered the same way.

Southgate may be the first England manager who can tell his players to approach a World Cup game with the same energy as a Premier League match.

Iran could not live with that, England first to every second ball when their attacks broke down, Declan Rice and Bellingham especially prominent at renewing attacks.

Opposing coaches will have noted that. The other strong European countries usually have a mid-season break. England’s players are accustomed to playing every three or four games at this time of year.

It means Southgate and his coaching team will have no worries about burn-out in the latter stages, especially when he has the luxury of making changes for the last 30 minutes with the game won early as it was against Iran.

​Whenever England have gone far in major tournaments, they have tended to grow into it after difficult starts. There were draws in 1966, Italia ’90 and Euro ’96.

In Russia, England needed a late winner after a difficult 90 minutes against Tunisia. And there was a lot of negativity after a goalless draw with Scotland in the second game of the last Euros.

After so many indifferent starts to World Cups and European championships, England fans should not be embarrassed to embrace the positivity when their team starts this well on the biggest stage – and in the manner they did so with some brilliant football and goals.

There are many unpleasant reasons why this World Cup feels different to any other.

For England, we may have just witnessed the most positive consequence of a winter World Cup.

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