After a painstakingly slow ceremony in Qatar, all countries who have qualified for the 2022 World Cup now know their group stage opponents. England did not have to wait long to enter the fray, with the one-time World Cup winners drawn into Group B. They were subsequently joined in this group by Iran, USA, and one of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine.
The uncertainty of the fourth team in the group makes it a little more difficult for Gareth Southgate’s men to prepare, although it is expected that this will be resolved well in advance of the tournament starting in November. Despite this, and without England counting their chickens before they hatch, it is a group that England will be confident that they can win; particularly given their recent history in tournaments.
This is not an England side that will underestimate their opponents, and the view that they are superior to their group stage opponents should not alter their professionalism. The way that England underperformed so ludicrously in a similar group in the 2010 World Cup and the last 16 exit to Iceland at Euro 2016 are still recent enough in the memory to guard against complacency.
Each opponent that England face will present their own challenges and will each have a plan to upset the Euro 2020 finalists. Netherlands will kick off the tournament against AFCON champions Senegal at 10am UK time on Monday 21st November, then at 1pm it is England’s turn to take centre stage, as they face Iran.
The following post takes a look at England’s group stage opponents, and assesses the challenges associated with each.
Date: Mon 21st November, 1pm (UK)
FIFA World Ranking: 21st
Manager: Dragan Skočić
Star Man: Mehdi Taremi (FC Porto)
Iran are the biggest unknown in the group, with many of their players lesser known names to English fans. They have been led by Croatian manager Dragan Skočić since February 2020 and topped a qualifying group ahead of Heung-Min Son’s South Korea. In fact, from Skočić being appointed, Iran only dropped points in two of their 14 qualifiers, both at the hands of the South Koreans.
They should arrive in Qatar full of confidence and keen to make their mark. They will relish being underdogs in the group and talismanic striker Mehdi Taremi will be keen to show his talents to a wider audience. The 29-year-old striker plies his trade for FC Porto and currently has 17 goals and 14 assists in all competitions for the Portuguese giants. While Taremi is perhaps regarded in higher esteem in Europe, Serdar Azmoun is the man who has the hearts of Iranian fans. The 27-year-old has previously been dubbed the ‘Iranian Messi’ and, while these claims may be a little deceptive, he does possess real talent. After spending the entirety of his career in Russia, Azmoun secured a big move to Bayer Leverkusen in January. He is yet to really get going in Germany, but boasts an impressive 40 goals in 62 games for his country.
Azmoun and Taremi are the two biggest attacking threats that Iran have at their disposal, but they are by no means a one or two-man team. Premier League followers will recognise former Brighton attacker Alireza Jahanbakhsh who now resides at Feyenoord, while a number of other Iranian regulars play their football across Europe. If England are expecting an easy game against Iran then recent history suggests they will be sorely mistaken. In the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Iran gave a very good account of themselves in a thankless group, beating Morocco 1-0 before suffering a defeat by the same scoreline to Spain and then drawing 1-1 with Portugal.
Date: Fri 25th November, 7pm (UK)
FIFA World Ranking: 15th
Manager: Gregg Berhalter
Star Man: Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)
Despite usually qualifying for the World Cup without too much difficulty, USA limped across the finish line to qualify in the third automatic qualification spot afforded to the CONCACAF region. They finished ahead of Costa Rica on goal difference, with Canada qualifying in first and Mexico in second. Manager Gregg Berhalter has come under criticism by fans of the USA national side, with the former Columbus Crew boss struggling with a side that perhaps boasts the best individuals in recent US football history. A loss against Panama and a 0-0 draw away at El Salvador were particularly poor results, however they will be hoping they can find form just in time for the World Cup.
Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is the most high-profile player that USA currently have, but they have a number of talented players who ply their trade at a number of established European clubs. Giovanni Reyna, the son of former Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna, is a real talent who is in safe hands being nurtured by Borussia Dortmund. The attacking midfielder has struggled with injuries this season, but at just 19 years of age he is already one of the most exciting young players in Germany. Reyna also boasts the record of being the youngest player to reach 50 Bundesliga appearances and should be a player that England pay close attention to.
Berhalter’s biggest task is to get a number of very talented, but very young, players playing together effectively. There is talent throughout the side, starting with Manchester City second choice goalkeeper Zack Steffen. The biggest weakness on paper for this USA side is the defence, although English fans will recognise the likes of ex-Newcastle United fullback Deandre Yedlin and Antonee Robinson of Fulham. Sergiño Dest of Barcelona is another fullback that USA can call upon, but England can certainly look to expose a relatively weak area in the centre of the USA defence. In midfield and attack USA’s side really is a who’s who of young talent. Juventus’ Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig, and Yunus Musah of Valencia are all 23 or younger and should feature in midfield. In the attacking areas Konrad De La Fuente of Marseille, Timothy Weah of Lille, Ricardo Pepe of Augsburg, and Brenden Aaronson of RB Salzburg possess an embarrassing amount of talent at such young ages, but all are relatively new to the international scene and may suffer as a result of their lack of experience.
It is yet to really click for the US’ talented young side but there have been glimpses of their potential, such as their recent 5-1 victory over Panama in which Pulisic scored an impressive hat-trick. Berhalter has favoured a 433 formation in World Cup qualifying, and is expected to persist with this come the finals this winter. England will fancy they will create chances against an average defence, but they will need to be wary of the attacking flair USA possess at the other end.
Date: Tue 29th November, 7pm (UK)
FIFA World Ranking: 18th/45th/24th
Manager: Steve Clarke/Robert Page/Oleksandr Petrakov
Star Man: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)/Kieran Tierney (Arsenal)/Olexandr Zinchenko (Machester City)
The only unknown for England is who their third and final group game will be against. Gareth Bale came in clutch for Wales against Austria, as he has done so often in the past, scoring two goals of the highest quality in Wales’ 2-1 win in their play-off semi-final. They await the winners of Scotland versus Ukraine in the other semi-final, which is currently scheduled for June after the conflict in Ukraine meant that it was postponed.
England have played each of the three potential opponents in competition football in recent history and will be wary of the different challenges associated with each. For Wales, it is primarily a case of stopping the insatiable Gareth Bale. The Wales record goalscorer has made no secret that his final desire in a glittering career is to lead his country to their first World Cup finals since 1956 and he will be determined as ever should he get them to Qatar. Robert Page took over as Wales boss from Ryan Giggs in difficult circumstances but he has shown a cool head and the ability to get the best out of his players since taking the reigns. Aaron Ramsey still has plenty to offer when fit, but stopping Wales from counter-attacking is the key to managing their strengths. Dan James has pace to burn and is often deployed in a forward role to allow maximum opportunity to counter.
Scotland were the only team that stopped England from scoring in Euro 2020, as the two sides played out a dull 0-0 draw in the group stages. Steve Clarke seems to have found a system that works and also that allows him to get all of his best players on the pitch. The issue of having only two players who it could be argued are world class that happen to play in the same position has been addressed, with Kieran Tierney playing in a back three and Andrew Robertson as a left-wingback. The back three system has also seen Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay as the right centre back in the back three. In midfield, the likes of John McGinn, Billy Gilmour, Stuart Armstrong, and Ryan Christie all possess quality, while Che Adams’ decision to make himself available for selection has given Scotland a decent focal point to their attack for the first time in a number of years. Like Wales, they are not the most expansive of sides, but they have become increasingly difficult to beat.
Ukraine were England’s opponents in their only game away from Wembley during Euro 2020. Southgate’s men swept their opposition aside with relative ease that night, winning 4-0 in Rome. They are a side whose whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts, but that sometimes lacks that bit of star quality. This means that they can get good results against superior opposition, but can struggle to put lesser teams to the sword. Nothing evidences this better than the fact they drew twice with world champions France in qualifying but also failed to beat Kazakhstan home or away. Olexandr Zinchenko is perhaps their most technically gifted player and plays in a more advanced role than the left-back role we have grown accustomed to seeing him play for Manchester City. Roman Yaremchuk of Benfica leads the line well, and was impressive at Euro 2020, but isn’t a prolific striker. West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko is a player who has always performed for his country and is his country’s second highest goalscorer of all time with 44 goals; behind only the legendary Andriy Shevchenko on 48.
The emotional aspect of a big game against Wales or Scotland is something that Southgate may feel his England side could do without, but is a source of excitement for fans on both sides. Ukraine are likely to have learnt from their Euros defeat at the hands of England and should be more difficult to beat if the teams are to meet in Qatar. The open manner in which they played last summer allowed England to pick them off at will and they would be foolish to approach any potential rematch in the same way.