Team Melli


In less than 24 hours, Iran and Morocco will face-off in the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup’s Group Bin Saint Petersburg. Both teams are given slim chances of advancing from a tough group, but their ability to surprise the world should not be overlooked. The opponents are daunting to say the least. Both teams will face the 2010 World Cup champions Spain and the current European champion Portugal. Morocco will not be an easy match for Iran either. As one Africa’s top teams, Morocco is packed with talented players who kick for European clubs such as Juventus, Real Madrid, and Ajax.

Iran’s team does not seem to be a pushover and should be taken seriously. It is full of talented young players who have gelled well together under the direction of the team’s experienced Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz. The ultimate results are hard to predict and anything can happen on the wondrous World Cup stage. So rather than predicting the outcomes, I thought it may be interesting to analyze Iran’s strength, weaknesses, and overall style of play.

Iran’s Strengths: They have more strikers and attacking mid-fielders than the 2014 World Cup and that could help Queiroz with his tactical plans. It may allow the team to take more calculated attacking options. In addition to Sardar Azmoun who plays for the Russian club Rubin Kazan, Iran has Alireza Jahanbakhsh who became the top scorer in the Dutch league. Karim Ansarifard is the second top scorer in Greece, Kaveh Rezaei was among the top scorers in Belgium and Saman Ghoddos had a great season with his club in Sweden. They play well as a team. They know how to defend as a team and press affectively. They seem very united and no dramas or negative rivalries exist between players.

Iran’s Weaknesses: Iran struggles when it comes to its defensive line. Defense at times seems confused and unorganized, especially when the defensive midfielder, Saeed Ezatolahi, is not in the game. Bad news is that he is suspended for the crucial opening match against Morocco. Queiroz’s search for replacements have not provided the perfect match. Another major weakness in defense is the center back. Morteza Pouraliganji and Jalal Hosseini have been reliable center-backs, but after Queiroz decided to leave behind Hosseini, he is forced to deploy another defender alongside Pouraliganji. Cheshmi seems to be the replacement, but that’s not the position he usually plays, so his comfort level seems to be low. The percentage of defensive mistakes go up dramatically when the speed of the game goes up and this gets worse without Ezatolahi. Iran still struggles with positioning and covering gaps that open up between the defensive and midfield lines. The team has also struggled with stamina and physical strength in the past.

Game Analysis: Through the friendly matches that lacked the expected quality, Queiroz attempted to build the team’s self-confidence before the World Cup. The team is much younger than four years ago and inexperienced. Lack of experience at times results in messy and slow starts, but they typically find themselves after 15-20 minutes. Iran’s team is not built to come back from behind. If Iran falls behind early on, more than likely it will not be able to recover. According to an analysis by a popular sports program in the country, Iran has been scored on first in 16 games under Quiroz’s tenure. They have lost every single of those games.

Thus far, the current team has demonstrated better tactical abilities compared to 2014 and Queiroz has recognized this improvement. As a result, his style is becoming riskier, which he demonstrated in the friendly matches against Tunisia and Algeria. He is trusting the players to begin pressing in the opponent’s half, which has resulted in some great scoring opportunities. This tactic may be utilized against Morocco in particular.

More than likely, the tactic adopted against Spain and perhaps even against Portugal will be a deep multi-layered defensive game in Iran’s own half. Iran’s approach would be a less risky game against those two teams where the players are forced to take advantage of potential counterattacks and care less about a possession game. This style of play calls for high levels of coordination and tactical discipline in pressing and requires high levels of physical readiness. It forces a lot of one-on-one battles that need to be fought and won. Iran has made incredible tactical advances in this area, but the old-school style of some of the defensive players had to change for this approach to yield results. Utilizing this approach also requires defenders and wingers who are accurate deep passers in order to set-up the counter attacks in transition. Judged by those indicators, Pejamn Montazeri seems to be the only defender who had a satisfactory performance during Iran’s friendly matches. The rest of the defensive line made a lot of errors, especially when the speed of the game increased. An easy way to threaten Iran is to take advantage of the spaces that open up behind the defensive halfbacks. Something that the Tunisian and Algerian strikers managed to utilize well.

Iran Opponent Preview: Portugal


Qualified: 1st in UEFA Group B, 9-0-1, 27 pts

Manager: Fernando Santos

Best Finish: Third (1966)

Last Appearance: 2014, Knocked out in Group Stage finished 3rd in group

Strengths: Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a few more strike partners this time around. And a stingy/disciplined defense.  

Weaknesses: Over-reliance on Ronaldo. An aging central defense in Pepe and Jose Fonte or the ageless Bruno Alves could prove their Achilles heel in games against speedier opponents.

Who was left behind: Renato Sanches (Swansea City on loan from FC Bayern), Eder (Lokomotiv Moscow on loan from Lille), Nani (Lazio on loan from Valencia)

Analysis: There’s a tendency to over exaggerate Portugal’s abilities. With Ronaldo, it’s easy to see why. But, their win at the European Championships two years ago in France was more of a fluke than due to their quality. In the group phase, the Portuguese side didn’t win a game and finished third behind Hungary and Iceland—both teams weaker than Iran’s current side. It took them until the semi-finals to win a game in regular time. And, at the last World Cup, they finished third behind Germany, the eventual champions, and the US.

Portugal will rely on a tried and true method of reducing risk, while maximizing rewards. They’ll mirror the strategies and tactics that won Leicester City the EPL title—essentially, they drag teams down to their level. Look for stingy defending combined with a more direct style when transitioning to offense. Even in their offensive third, however, there’s a tendency to think defensively. They like to cross the ball from the corner of the penalty box, as opposed to taking it closer to the goal line. This tactic allows them to be better positioned to stop a counter attack. Crosses will look to find Ronaldo or whoever is chosen to be his strike partner—and there are plenty of options.

They will likely line up in a 4-4-2, but then transition to a 4-3-3 when moving from defense to offense. Bernardo Silva will be tasked with pushing up and providing the third option in attack.

Defensively, the Portuguese will be forced to rely on the aging Pepe, Jose Fonte, and Bruno Alves. They’ll likely be exposed in their first match against Spain.

In my opinion, based on the games I’ve watched, Portugal actually seems more dynamic with Ronaldo off the pitch. The team seems to rely on him too much to carry the load. But without him, they become multi-dimensional and more free flowing. That said, it’s hard to top the quality that Ronnie brings to the table.

How to beat them: Eliminate their ability to counter-attack. Utilize a strong holding midfield player to stop/prevent quick outlet passes to either of Portugal’s wing midfield options. Pressure their aging and less mobile center backs, force them to make clumsy tackles (which they’re all apt to do) and bad passes out of the back. Wing players should try to go deeper when in possession and play the ball back in between the defensive and midfield lines. Teams have created several opportunities this way versus the European Champions.

While it’s important not to lose focus on Ronaldo, teams shouldn’t forget about everyone else. There are several other potentially dangerous players lining up with the Portuguese captain.

Iran’s Chances: Hopefully, Iran will have the gotten the results they need to progress before this game. Nonetheless, I’m bullish. Iran possesses the skill sets necessary to beat a team like Portugal. If they press at the right times, they can force their aging opponents into mistakes. On the defensive side, they’ll have Saeid Ezatolahi for this game, unlike in their first against Morocco. He will be key to preventing a Portuguese counter-attack and monitoring CR7. 

Possible Spanish Starting 11: I pulled this from the Guardian. As I said before, Bernardo Silva will likely become a third striker or winger when Portugal moves from defense to offense. This tactical adjustment forces Soares to push up to provide him cover. Guedes is certainly on form at the moment, but Andre Silva could also make a start alongside Ronaldo, instead.

Iran Opponent Preview: Spain


Qualified: 1st in UEFA Group G, 9-1-0, 28 pts

Manager: Fernando Hierro

Best Finish: Winners (2010)

Last Appearance: 2014, Knocked out in Group Stage finished 3rd in group

Strengths: Play a possession style game with dynamic movements among the wingers and attacking midfield players. Strong centrally out of the back starting with David de Gea (Manchester United) at goalkeeper, Gerard Pique (Barcelona) and Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) in central defense, and ending with Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) as the holding midfield player.

Weaknesses: Drama with the coach being sacked just two days before their first game. He signed to replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, who left the posting after winning his third Champions League title in a row. But he did so without informing the Spanish Federation. Age will also be a factor with Pique, Ramos, Busquets, and Iniesta all heading into the twilight of their careers. Older teams have a tendency to taper off. They also have no in form striker.

Who was left behind: Javi Martinez (FC Bayern), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), Hecter Bellerin (Arsenal), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Alberto Moreno (Liverpool), Gerard Deulofeu (Watford), Ander Herrera (Manchester United), Pedro (Chelsea), Marc Bartra (Real Betis), Dani Perejo (Valencia), Jose Callejon (Napoli)

Analysis: Spain is certainly the team to beat in Group B, despite not being one of the seeded teams for the draw. Chalk that up to Portugal’s miracle in France two summers ago. As seen by the players they left behind, their 23-man roster certainly has more depth than the others in the group. The recently sacked manager Julen Lopetegui selected a squad that heavily favored those playing in Spain with only a handful plying their trade elsewhere.

Spain still plays tiki-taka which can be described as ‘death by a thousand passes.’ They prefer to penetrate an opposing defense by passing the ball quickly, while players off the ball create space through interchanging positions. Look for the wingers and the attacking midfield players to constantly change places. Diego Costa, deservedly cast as the villain, will likely be more of a target player, while other strikers could join in the kinetic interchange.

Success, however, depends on Sergio Busquet’s ability to play the pivot role—essentially the leader of both the offensive and defensive transition. If he’s allowed to jumpstart a counter attack or distribute freely, opponents will be in for a long day. That said, he is lucky enough to have one of the best central defenses in the game—Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Add to those two David de Gea, who is hands down the best goalie in the world, and you have the makings of a formidable defense.

How to beat them: 1) Be comfortable not having possession. 2) Be disciplined in defense. 3) Press Busquets, don’t give him time or space to distribute. 4) Finish your chances. 5) Be physical, especially with their wingers and attacking midfield players, who are smaller and more prone to being put off by physical play. 6) Think US v Spain 2009, Brazil v Spain 2013, The Netherlands v Spain 2014, or Italy v Spain 2016.

Iran’s Chances: Personally, I like the way they match up against Spain. Iran’s midfield is stronger, bigger, and much more physical than Spain’s. Their wingers are skillful enough to create the types of chances Sardar Azmoun could finish off, while also putting the right type of pressure on Busquet. The worry, however, comes from the relatively new partnership in central defense. Iran coach Carlos Quieroz didn’t have enough warm-up matches to settle on a consistent pairing. That said, Saeid Ezatolahi will be back after missing the first game due to a red card suspension. Iran tends to be more organized when he’s playing as the holding midfield player. If they can channel their performance against Argentina in 2014, they just might pull it off.

Possible Spanish Starting 11: While I tend to agree with most of it, my guess is that against Iran Spain will opt for a more attacking formation—4-3-3, instead of the 4-2-3-1 listed. Thiago will be dropped in favor of Koke, who will push up to be alongside Isco. Asensio could also find his way into the starting lineup. My guess is that Iniesta, due to his age, won’t be able to play a full 90 minutes and if he does, he won’t be able to do so three times in ten days during the group phase.

Iran Opponent Preview: Morocco


Qualified: 1st in Group C, 3-3-0, 12 points

Manager: Herve Renard         

Best Finish: Round of 16, 1986

Last Appearance: 1998, 3rd place

Strengths:  Their manager, Herve Renard, has done a masterful job in creating a cohesive unit. He’s brought them back from virtual oblivion on the world stage.

Weaknesses: Their goalkeepers. The first-choice keeper Munir el Kajoui Mohamedi has all of four appearances for his club side this season (Numancia, Spanish 2nd Division).

Who was left behind: Sofiane Boufal (Southampton).

Analysis: Renard is leading a Moroccan team that is comprised of 60% foreign born players—mainly from France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Outside of qualifying for the first time in 20 years, the manager has been able to create a solid backline led by Mehdi Benatia (Juventus). The Atlas Lions kept a clean sheet through qualifying—albeit they only played six games, less than their other Group B opponents. That said one of the big question marks will be in goal, as the preferred starter has spent much of his club season on the bench.

In the midfield, the Moroccans will rely on a trio of veterans Younes Belhanda (Galatasary), M’Barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), and Nordin Amrabat (Leganes) to provide some composure and leadership. Meanwhile, Renard and company will lean on Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) to provide the creative spark necessary to break down their opponents. Look for Ziyech and Amrabat to switch wings often throughout the game to change up the points of attack.

Khaled Boutaib (Boutaib) will likely be the lone target player on offense.

Morocco plays a more adventurous style than any of the other teams in the group. Where Iran and Portugal play a more direct style focusing on counter attacks and Spain plays a game that relies on a series of short passes to create opportunities, the Moroccans tend to emphasize taking defenders 1v1 and creating opportunities for 1-2 passes on the edge of the box. They like to cross from closer the end line rather than further out like Portugal. Boutaib or Belhanda will try to combine with Ziyech or Amrabat to create chances in the attacking third.  

How to beat them: Because they like to take the ball deeper into their attacking third, they’re likely exposed to the quick counter attack. Teams should get players behind the ball and make efforts to not leave other defenders exposed in a 1v1 situation.

Iran’s Chances: Iran’s manager, Carlos Quieroz, has been working on a high press during some of the friendlies. I’m not certain he’ll employ the pressing tactic all too often versus the Altas Lions. They’ll likely work to stay behind the ball to mitigate any 1v1 situations. Luckily, Iran is fairly adept at creating chances on the counter. It’s a must win for both teams, so I’m certain it’ll be exciting.

Possible Moroccan Starting 11:  From the Guardian. Based on what I read, this isn’t likely to change. Fayçal Fajr (Getafe) will likely be one of the first off the bench, especially if they need a spark.