“Team Melli” is on its way back to the World Cup spotlight after missing an appearance at South Africa four years ago. Being drawn in the same group as Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran will certainly have a tough time proving themselves as the most prominent team in Asia at the moment. They’ve made a point by ending up in front of South Korea on their route to Brazil, beating them twice in the qualifying round; but if they’re not going to be careful, their opponents could punish them severely. Their main hope lies in the experience of Carlos Queiroz who brought in more than a few changes in their locker room.
Although Queiroz switched through more than a few formations during his reign at Iran, he still opts for a typical 4-2-3-1 variation as his favourite one. The main reason behind this decision lies in the strongest part of the team – the two holding midfielders, Javad Nekounam and Andranik Teymourian. The experienced duo (Nekounam is both captain and the most capped player in the current setup) function as a bulwark in front of the defensive line. They are both capable of stopping the opponent’s attacks through the middle and they can score as well, especially when given space for a long distance shots. But when transformed into 4-3-3, or sometimes even 4-1-4-1, they lose something of their roles after being pushed more forward, since they suffer from a lack of creation – mainly in the counter attacking phase, which would probably be their main preoccupancy while playing in group stage.
Also, the 4-3-3 formation could result in serious problems during the torunament, since all of their opponents focus their attacks via some of the important wide men like Moses, Messi, or Džeko more up front, when speaking of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The 4-2-3-1 formation also brings out the best in Iran’s attacking quartet, since Dejagah of Fulham as their right winger, alongside either young Jahanbakhsh of NAC Breda or Khalatbari of the domestic team Persepolis FC, can be provided with significantly more space. That would allow them to outpace the opponent’s fullbacks and to either try to cut in and try to find a place for a clear shot or to go and proceed a trough ball to the pair up front, consisted of sole striker Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic) – their key man towards the end of the qualifiers – and Mashud Shoajei, who is believed to be the starter behind Reza. In their two last friendlies against Montenegro and Angola, Iran was practicing solely their ongoing 4-2-3-1 formation, trying out various players at the same time, not worrying about the fact that Queiroz obviously still has more difficulties about which starting lineup will run out for their opener versus Nigeria, than about which formation that team will play in.
As said earlier, Queiroz is still not sure which eleven players will start the game on Arena da Baixada. Naming a goalkeeper, right full-back and left winger remain perhaps his biggest decisions to make in the next ten days. Rahmad Ahmadi proved himself when needed in between the posts, keeping a clean sheet for the 270 final minutes of the qualifiers after Queiroz lost the experienced Mehdi Rahmati due to personal conflict with him after their home defeat against Uzbekistan. But then again, Daniel Davari of Eintracht Braunschweig – who is a part of Queiroz’ intake of players from various European leagues and also of Iranian heritage – enjoys the trust from the Portuguese, due to the fact that he has more experience in bigger matches while (unsuccessfully) trying to prevent Braunschweig from being relegated from Bundesliga.
The defensive line is more or less defined, with Hosseini and Sadeqi as strong centre-backs, as well as another Quieroz favorite, pacey Mehrdad Pooladi on the left-back. Pooladi can be pushed more towards the middle as well if needed, as he often was during the qualifiers. But when facing stronger opponents, Iran prefers to control their fullbacks’ movement alongside the flanks; logically, they want to prevent any possible gap opening, leaving precious space for the opponents to create a fast counter attack. As for the right side, we may be witnessing another last-minute switch from Khosro Heydari, who now appears to be a former first team regular, in favour of Steven Beitashour; a relatively new name to “Team Meli” from the Vancouver Whitecaps. The defensive line won’t be as static as we expect them to be but their movement will surely be much more cautious, since any mistake could cost them a fortune.
Since Iran lacks a true playmaker, with Shoajei lacking technical ability and consistency,required to fulfill that role adequately, the main burden of creating a fast counter-attack transition will be on the wingers Ashkan Dejagah on the right and, as said earlier, either Khalatbari or young talent Jahanbakhsh on the left side. Predictions about who will pair up with Dejagah still vary, but either one will provide a much needed pace. Still, Khalatbari could well be ahead as a starter, considering his rich history with the national team; and as for Jahanbakhsh, the youngster who gained a name in Eredivisie for being an expert on scoring from the bench, so he could be used as a hidden asset for Queiroz’s ideas up front. The target man in the tip of the attack will be another newly found gem, Reza “Gucci” Ghoochannejhad who was an absolute discovery of the Asian qualifiers, bagging nine goals in eleven games. Although he played for Holland on almost all youth level teams, he chose to play for Iran on the senior level, despite the rumors of the Iranian public raising eyebrows on such a last-minute move. He quickly proved them wrong, and with his ability to sniff out the opportunity to place a shot from a narrow angle, as well as to gouge a smart through ball, he is destined to have a lot of eyes focused on him.
Iran has sort of an advantage by being well under the radar, and though their game plan is somewhat predictable, the game of chess will occur as their defensive block puts the very offensive sides like Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Nigeria to the test; and if they manage to remain focused long enough, the pressure will be on the opposing team, making them more prone to errors. And that’s where the Iranians have to seek their chance to carry out a successful counter attack or to make the best out of the possible free kicks located in the shooting zone.
Ashkan Dejagah | Despite being relegated with Fulham, twenty-seven year old Dejagah had a fairly good season, contributing with five goals in twenty-two appearances. As for the national team, German-born Dejagah is still considered a freshly introduced player, although he made his debut in the qualifier against Qatar more than two years ago, in the match where he scored twice. He is a typical winger, fast and focused on making his cuts in the space between the defenders, and the World Cup could earn him a ticket back to either Premiership or some other bigger club. Funny enough, he is close friends with Edin Džeko of Bosnia & Herzegovina, back from his Wolfsburg days; they’ll be sure to put their friendship aside when facing each other on June 25th.
Javad Nekounam & Andranik Teymourian | The duo in front of the defense line presents the most significant part of the Iranian squad. The two experienced holders carry the burden of leading the team while at the same time choking the middle, preventing the opponents from finding extra space. Also, they won’t be focused on defensive tasks only; Nekounam is the team’s current top goalscorer, netting 37 goals in 139 appearances, which ought to be surprising considering his position. But at the same time, these two are very good at long ranged shots, as well as finding space for a good header after a fine delivered cross, both of which are very useful against these types of opponents. If Ghoochannejhad finds himself closed down, the real threat could perhaps lurk from the shadows.
TALENT RADAR – KEY YOUNG PLAYERS
Alireza Jahanbakhsh | Going into the World Cup Iran has one of the highest average age’s (27), with only a few players on the list aged under 25. Amongst them is the name of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the twenty-one year old NEC Nijmengen winger who adapted pretty well on both sides, posing as a left winger for the national team while being placed on the right side at NEC. Scoring five goals, mostly after coming off the bench later on, Alireza made the headlines in Holland after saving NEC from the direct relegation by scoring two late goals against Ajax in the final Eredivisie match last season. With a goal in four appearances for Iran, he is certainly what you would call a “cat in the bag”, and could be up for more proving ahead of his biggest challenge yet.
Iran’s play won’t be an eye-candy, but rather focused on the stiff back line, as well as waiting for their opportunities from their opponents’ errors. The experienced team, led by the head coach of the same profile, will make sure they keep their heads cool and their tackles strong. Queiroz is not in his prime, and this World Cup may be his last chance to get a contract back in the “Old continent”. A place in the group stage is a great result for “Team Melli” as it is, but the personality of the prominent players doesn’t allow them to surrender up front. Iran will equip themselves with a steady defensive play, and if they make anything out of it, the pride of their fans will certainly be their biggest reward.
This article was written by Juraj Vrdoljak. Follow him on Twitter @sobonja
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