Iran: frustrating to watch, frustrating to play against
In a World Cup featuring lots of very familiar sides, Iran are something of an exception.
They were absent from the 2010 edition, lack standout individual names, and a combination of politics and finances means their preparation for the tournament, in terms of warm-up matches, has been minimal, although they’ve now managed to squeeze in four pre-tournament friendlies. Opposition players won’t naturally know much about Iran, and opposition scouts will find it difficult to build a picture of their strengths and weaknesses.
Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to work out Iran’s gameplan. Their coach, former Real Madrid and Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz, specialises in building defensively solid sides – at the previous World Cup, his Portugal side boasted the most organised, resilient backline in the competition, conceding just one goal in four matches against Spain, Brazil, the Ivory Coast and North Korea.
Queiroz will drill Iran relentlessly on the training ground. “Carlos was obsessive about stopping [the opposition],” said Gary Neville in his autobiography, remembering Queiroz’s time as Manchester United’s assistant coach. “We’d never seen such attention to detail. He’d put sit-up mats on the training pitch to mark exactly where he wanted the players to be, to the nearest yard. We rehearsed time and time again, sometimes walking through the tactics slowly with the ball in our hands.”
It doesn’t sound like great fun, but in a purely defensive sense, it’s often highly effective. The defensive work starts from the forwards – the front two will drop off close to the halfway line and ensure Iran stay extremely compact – they don’t sit very deep as a unit, but instead minimise the space between front and back effectively.
Iran will stick to a defensive-minded 4-4-1-1, which is extremely unspectacular and amongst the least interesting systems on show in Brazil. The weakness at the back might come from defending set-pieces, because there’s a lack of genuine height in the side, which extends to goalkeeper Rahman Ahmadi, just 6′0.
The defenders largely concentrate on defending. Probable right-back Pejman Montazeri is a centre-back by trade, and while he sometimes goes on sporadic but unconvincing charges into attack, he lacks guile on the ball and is better off staying at home. He has a good relationship with Jalal Hosseini, the right-sided centre-back who likes sticking tightly to opponents, reventing them from turning.
Left-footed centre-back Amir Sadeghi provides a nice balance in possession, while left-back Hashem Beikzadeh will probably overlap more than Montazeri on the opposite side.
The central midfield zone is the most intelligent section of the side. Javad Nekounam and Andranik Teymourian both have experience in top-level European leagues and are both positionally disciplined and comfortable in possession. Nekounam drops deep to collect the ball from the centre-backs, can play good passes into attack, and can make late runs into the penalty box when the ball is wide. Teymourian plays a covering role, and keeps his distribution simpler. He also takes the corners with an unusual straight run-up, firing the ball into the six-yard box.
The wingers do what you’d expect – defend the wide zones, then motor forward to join the front two. Right-sided Khosro Heydari is a full-back pushed forward by Montezeri’s move out wide, summed up by him wearing the number 2 shirt. He’s energetic and can swing in decent crosses. On the other flank, Masoud Shajaei is a tricky wide forward who likes running with the ball, and can play on either flank.
There is genuine quality in the final third. Ashkan Dejagah and Reez Ghoochannejhad both grew up in western Europe, playing for the youth sides of Germany and Holland respectively before recently switching to Iran. They work well as a unit because both are effective at moving laterally – Dejagah is more renowned for his ability from a wide position, where he likes cutting inside and shooting, while Ghoochannejhad roams the channels and is clever at drawing free-kicks in dangerous positions, which are usually taken by Dejagah. The Fulham man really needs to provide a spark in the final third, and ensure he connects midfield, the wingers and the striker, or else this side can appear extremely basic going forward.
Iran’s matches rarely produce many goals, demonstrated by a 0-0 against Belarus, a 0-0 against Monetenegro and a 1-1 against Angola in their warm-up games. They’ve specialised in 1-0s under Queiroz, with 0-0 another common scoreline. Seven of their final eight qualifiers produced zero or one goal.
Fitness is a concern, with Dejagah epitomising this problem – he can provide great moments, but always seems exhausted towards the end of matches.
Iran’s organisation will make them tricky opponents, and their group might suit them. For example, they could frustrate Nigeria, a talented side who have problems breaking down packed defences.
It’s easy to imagine Iran frustrating opponents in the first half before eventually being defeated late on as, fitness levels come into play – it’s tough to see them progressing, but they shouldn’t be embarrassed.
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Formation: It’s fashionable to call everything a 4-2-3-1, but the defensiveness of the wide players means it’s a 4-4-1-1
Key player: Ashkan Dejagah – can provide the spark in the final third
Strength: defensive organisation
Weakness: fitness concerns
Key tactical question: how good are their transitions? It’s the difference between a pure defensive side and a decent counter-attacking outfit
Iran: frustrating to watch, frustrating to play against