Iran might be ranked first in Asia, but there’s a real sense of pessimism about their chances at the Asian Cup.
Sadly, they’ve been undermined by politics and finances, where serious questions need to be raised about the professionalism of the Iranian Football Federation. Coach Carlos Queiroz isn’t overly exaggerating when he says “we are ranked number one in Asia, but we come into the Asian Cup ranked last in terms of preparation”.
Prior to the World Cup, for example, Iran played a limited number of friendlies against poor opposition, with the Federation preferring to organise informal training camps outside of FIFA’s international breaks, meaning players weren’t released by clubs who had no obligation to do so.
A similar theme continued prior to this tournament, with the squad travelling to Portugal and Spain, but playing very few competitive friendly matches. In a period where a team like Australia has managed five, Iran have played two – one against South Korea, and one against Iraq a week out from their opening game.
To add to the drama, Queiroz seemed to resign from his position after the World Cup after a drawn-out contract renewal saga, only to sign on for an unspecified amount of years. It was crucial that they were able to keep him, because this side has been firmly made in his image, as many will remember from their three group games in Brazil.
There, Iran lived up to Queiroz’s reputation – organised, structured and defensively disciplined, working very hard without the ball for long periods to frustrate the opposition. A compact shape with minimal space between the line of attack, midfield and defence is like Queiroz’s calling card, evidenced in previous spells at Portugal, Real Madrid and Manchester United (the latter as an assistant coach).
Don’t expect to be entertained by Queiroz – in fact, if they win this tournament, it’ll probably be with six consecutive 1-0 wins – but it should be effective. His mantra has clearly rubbed off onto the players.
“The Iranian national team is not Brazil or Argentina, with many star players,” says striker Reza Ghoochannejhad. “We are a team and we must play as a tight team. We must have strong tactics to succeed on the field. When necessary, we all play in defence and when it is time to attack we all play as a team.”
At the World Cup, he used a 4-5-1, but he has spoken about the need to play a more expansive game and so will probably revert to a 4-2-3-1 that will become 4-4-1-1 when Iran are defending. At the back, Pejman Montazeri, a mainstay of the side, is injured, so Amir Sadhegi will play alongside Jalar Hosseini – both will get lots of protection from the players ahead of them, so their main job will be to clear away loose balls and defend against crosses.
The evolution towards a more proactive approach suggests that Heydari, who played right-wing at the World Cup, will return to his natural berth at right-back. On the left, Queiroz can choose between Hashem Beikzadeh and Mehrdad Pooladi, the latter being the starting full-back from the World Cup. Edit: Ehsan Hajsafi is also capable of playing there, and according to Irani fans, will start there for the opening game.
In midfield, Javad Nekounam and Andranik Teymourian are the brains of the operation – two players that have experience in Europe, and do a superb job protecting the back four. Nekouman is the better passer and hits dangerous forward passes on the counter. Alternatively, if Queiroz returns to the 4-5-1 of the World Cup, he’ll bring Hajsafi into a midfield three, and use Nekounam deep.
An ‘attacking’ Iran team selection would have three outright attackers behind the striker. The selection of Shojaei, a mobile dribbler, behind the striker in the South Korea friendly suggests that Ashkan Dejagah might play wide, where he dribbles forward purposefully before cutting inside and shooting.
Rounding out the attacking trio could be Alireza Jahanbakhsh, currently impressing in the Dutch league for NEC Nijmegen. Another quick, direct forward playing predominantly from the left, he fits the system, and is a good finisher. As all three attackers are capable of playing left, right and #10, expect them to be flexible and swap positions during games.
Both wide players have lots of work to do in tracking back to protect their full-backs, before carrying the ball forward on the counter – it’s so important that their transitions are good, though, or else they end up sitting too deep as a unit.
Upfront is Ghoochannejhad, who originally played for the Dutch youth teams before switching allegiance. He impressed at the World Cup with his ability to hold the ball up and win free-kicks, an important quality in a team that often wins the ball in very deep positions. Ghoochannejhad likes to roam the channels, too, and could cause problems against teams that push their full-backs high up, which would create space for him to work in on the counter.
Iran might have to come out of their shell more as one of the stronger sides in the group, however, their major strength will be in games where they don’t have to take the initiative. Queiroz drills them meticulously on their defensive shape, and they’ll be tough to break down – and unlike a few sides at this tournament, they have genuine quality in the final third.
Queiroz is viewing this tournament as an opportunity to regenerate, signalled by the ten new faces introduced into the squad since the World Cup. This should help ease concerns from fans about the defensiveness, and an ageing side, but if they progress to the knock-out stages, Iran’s defensive strengths could propel them into a position of real strength.