Iraq finally toppled Iran after 120 minutes of what may be the Asian Cup’s all-time greatest game.
Carlos Quieroz named the same side that started Iran’s 1-0 win over Qatar in the second group match (having used the UAE game, between two sides that had already qualified, to rest key players). Ashkan Dejagah started on the right of a 4-5-1 formation, and Sardar Azmoun upfront.
Radhi Shnishel made one change from the 2-0 win over Palestine, bringing Alaa Abdul Zahra into the starting XI ahead of Amjed Kalaf. Dhurgham Ismail continued ahead of Ali Adnan at left-back.
Iran attack down right
In an even opening period where it felt like both sides were taking turns to attack, Iran had the better opportunities through their right-hand side, where Ashkan Dejagah had the better of his direct opponent, Dhurgham Ismail, and Vouria Ghafouri charged forward energetically from right-back.
Dhurgham was incredibly keen to stick very tight to Dejagah, even when the winger moved inside or dropped deep. Dejagah was often able to receive the ball with his back to Dhurgham, however, lay it off to a teammate and then move quickly into a new position to find space away from Dhurgham. Twice inside the opening twenty minutes, Dejagah had two (admittedly weak) shots from a space just outside the penalty area.
The danger was obvious, and in the 24th minute,when Dhurgham followed Dejagah high up the pitch, it created loads of space for right-back Vouria Ghafouri to charge into in behind. He was completely unmarked to send in the cross for Azmoun’s opening goal.
Iran’s defensive shape
After the goal, Iran were happy to slow the pace of the game, taking their time to restart the play and getting numbers behind the ball quickly when Iraq had possession. They defended in a 4-5-1 shape, with Masoud Shojaei ostensibly a #10 when Iran had possession, but tucking back into a left-of-centre midfield position when defending. Andranik Teymourian was to his right, with Javad Nekounam sitting behind them.
The format of the midfield in a 1-2 shape meant Iran aligned perfectly with Iraq’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Therefore, Iran found it easy to press on Iraq’s two deep-lying midfielders, Saad Abdulameer and Yaser Kasim, preventing them from having time and space to play forward.
Therefore, Iraq found it difficult to progress past Iran’s lines of defence, with the two centre-backs unable to lift the speed of the passing, or advance forward themselves and play a penetrative pass between the lines (as Trent Sainsbury had done so excellently for Australia the night before in a similar scenario against China).
Possession statistics were still fairly even at this point, though, with an 50/50 split at half-time.
10 v 11
Pooladi’s controversial red card just before the break changed the complexion of the match. Now, Iran’s defensiveness became even more exaggerated.
Both coaches made changes in response to this. Queiroz brought on Vahid Amiri, who played on the left wing, with Ehsan Hajsafi moving back to left-back. Iran were now 4-4-1, defending in two compact banks of four. Importantly, they maintained pressure on the two deep Iraqi midfielders, with Teymourian moving forward to close down Kasim, continuing to ensure he didn’t have time to play a forward pass.
Shnishel, meanwhile, brought on Marwan Hussein in place of Justin Meram, who had had a quiet first half. Tactically, though, this had little impact on the game, as Hussein essentially played the same role – staying high up, basically as a second striker.
Therefore, Iraq’s major problem – getting the ball past the first line of Iran’s defensive shape – remained. The centre-backs continued to work the ball forward slowly from the back, with centre-back Ahmed Ibrahim at one point visibly frustrated at the tempo at which they were playing. Later, when he attempted a pass over the top, his coach remonstrated with him from the touchline about giving away possession cheaply.
When playing against ten men, the ideal approach for the side with a numerical advantage is to work the ball quickly from side to side, stretching the defence and creating gaps to then quickly play forward into. For long periods, Iran were comfortable moving backwards and forwards as a unit, soaking up Iraq’s pressure. The equaliser was an exception rather than being indicative of the overall pattern of the second half.
Iraq have struggled to score goals in open play at this tournament. Of their three in the group stage, two were set-pieces, and the other a deflection. Against Jordan and Palestine, they lacked penetration in their possession, often relying on simple sideways passes out to the wingers and hoping they could produce something from out wide. It was perhaps no surprise that against the most organised defence in Asia, even with an extra man, Iraq struggled to create chances.
An area of great promise, though, was Dhurgham’s overlapping from left-back. He got forward past Dejagah (who eventually was switched upfront) and helped stretch the play, and it was his cross that lead directly to Ahmed Yasin’s equaliser. Later, Dhurgham again got forward to whip in another dangerous ball across the face of goal, before providing the assist for Younis Mahmoud’s goal early in extra time.
Going behind twice in extra time, Iran really had to go for it in two different periods. Impressively, both times when they were chasing the game, they managed to create some genuine pressure on Iraq’s goal, with Reza Ghoochannejhad, who had replaced Dejagah, providing fresh legs upfront, and Amiri leading counter-attacks with purposeful dribbling from the left.
Iran’s best chances, though, inevitably came from set-pieces. They were able to get tall players up from the back and whip balls into the box, which Iraq constantly looked uncomfortable defending. The Iraq tactical preview prior to the tournament suggested “they’re very weak in the air – for example, Australia’s last five goals against Iraq were all headers, while they conceded twice from corners in a friendly against Peru,” and Iran scored two equalisers in extra-time from headers, both from corners.
The second, scored by Ghoochannejhad, made it 3-3 in the 119th minute after an unbelievable scramble inside the penalty box that involved a header cleared off the line and a shot that hit the bar. It summed up the incredible, crazy nature of the game.
This was, quite simply, football at its best. Iran simply refused to give up, despite defending for over an hour with ten men, and twice having to turn all-out defensiveness into all-out attack in extra time.
Dhurgham was the key player. His proactive defending caused problems against the tricky Dejagah, with Iran’s emphasis towards attacking down that side leading directly to the opening goal. Then, the red card made it a straightforward tactical battle in the second half, but Iraq never really impressed in breaking down Iran’s defensive block, despite Dhurgham providing good impetus going forward. Fittingly, he scored the penalty that should have won Iraq the game in extra time.
Fortunately, their win on penalties meant the poor set-piece defending didn’t cost them. However, they are the weakest side left in the competition, as this was an unconvincing performance in a game that was predominantly 10 v 11. It was difficult to imagine them progressing before the red card.