(IranSportsPress.com) | The Guardian – Against Bosnia, a coach whose side have concentrated on defense will have to do more if they are to make the last 16
Only two sides in this World Cup went longer before conceding their first goal than Iran – and when that goal was scored it was a brilliant arcing 25-yard shot from Lionel Messi, at a moment when all 11 Iranian players were behind the ball. So far Iran have been able to resist everything but genius and the credit for that lies largely with one man: Carlos Queiroz.
The 61-year-old is a master of defensive tactics. He proved that in his time as assistant coach at Manchester United – Gary Neville and Patrice Evra have both spoken glowingly of how he set the team up to stifle Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2008 and it is noticeable how less defensively secure United have been, particularly in Europe, since he left to take charge of Portugal shortly after that year’s Champions League success.
There has been criticism, of course, and there was booing during the 0-0 draw against Nigeria but, as Queiroz has explained, with a squad without stars whose preparations have been severely disrupted by sanctions, he has had little option but to follow his conservative instincts. Queiroz has announced his intention to leave after the tournament, complaining about a lack of government support, but it says much for the impact he has had that his players are desperate for him to stay.
“If Queiroz leaves,” the Charlton striker Reza Ghoochannejhad told IranWire, “Iranian football will be the loser. It would be a bad thing. Queiroz has been in Iranian football for three years and knows all the players. I cannot believe he won’t be there after the World Cup. I hope he stays with the team.”
While Iran’s games may not have had the ebb and flow of much of the tournament, it is almost mesmerising watching how they close down shape. The principles are relatively simple: try to keep two lines of players between the opponent with the ball and the goal at all times, and try to prevent opponents moving into space between the two defensive banks. Still, to do it well requires great mental and physical discipline. The back four stay relatively flat with the full-backs advancing only occasionally, although the crossing of Pejman Montazeri from the right twice created great openings against Argentina.
The midfield is a little more complex. Javad Nekounam sits deep, between the two fours in a 4‑1‑4‑1, ensuring no player is given time between, in that central area 10 yards or so outside the penalty area. If a midfielder pushes out to go to the man with the ball, Nekounam fills the space, so the shape becomes 4-4-1-1.
“The Iranian national team is not Brazil or Argentina, with many star players,” said 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.”
The theory of radical non-possession has begun to take root recently, particularly as a means of combating possession-based approaches. Iran’s method is probably based less in personal choice than in pragmatism but the effect is the same: they allow the opposition the ball but prevent chances and hope that at some point frustration draws a mistake. Against Argentina, for instance, they completed only 53 passes in the first half – fewer than Javier Mascherano and the lowest tally recorded by a team for any half at the World Cup since records began to be compiled in 1966.
In the second, as Argentina became ragged in chasing the game, they completed 80, and could easily have won: Sergio Romero made two excellent saves from headers and Ashkan Dejagah should have had a penalty when he was tripped by Pablo Zabaleta.
Iran will go through to the last 16 for the first time in their history if they beat Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria lose to Argentina in the group’s final games. From Iran’s point of view, there are two questions: what sort of state will Bosnia be in after their abject defeat by Nigeria, and will their own side have the wherewithal to take the game to an opponent if they need to. “My major concern is to keep players focused,” said Queiroz. “And they’ll need to convert those chances.”
Before the tournament it had seemed Bosnia, with their attacking 4-4-2 and mass of midfield creators, would have been just the sort of side to fall into the Iranian trap but after essaying a more cautious approach brought two defeats, it is hard to know how they will approach their final game. It could be that their elimination is a liberation and they return to the free-flowing style of qualifying but the mood after the defeat by Nigeria was one of sulkiness and disaffection.
Iran could easily find themselves pushing against an open door – which, paradoxically, may not suit them.