Today, with Group B, we continue our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. The group teams are—England, Wales, Iran, and the Yanks (USA).
This group is one of the Western news media’s favorites as three of the teams represent major advertising markets, the teams’ players are very well known to their viewers, the nations have tremendous fan backing at their homes, and three of the four are English speaking. Add to that the Iran-USA political dramas, the normal UK bias toward their teams, and our media’s broadcasting of the games, and you have all of the ingredients for a great television soap opera.
England is fielding one of their strongest national teams in decades and must feel they are the class of the group, but Southgate’s lads have had a number of recent injury issues that have weakened and depleted their ranks. Furthermore, their Euro 2020 progression was suspect and their form in the current Nations League-A, where they were relegated to the B league, are telling of a team not yet jelling in the manner all of England would want.
Wales is living a dream and will be playing each of their matches as if they had nothing to lose, frankly, because they have nothing to lose. Their achievement was making it to the cup and anything beyond that is gravy. Look for Gareth Bale to leave an impact and for the Welsh to put up a good fight, but they simply do not have the weapons to compete on even terms with any of their three adversaries and will need many special conditions to materialize to progress.
Iran is a strong Asian side and are coming into their third successive cup ranked 22 in the world by FIFA. Playing three teams ranked above them, yes Wales too, would seemingly make for a tough road to knockout round qualification. But the Iranians are better than their ranking suggests and at the last World Cup, they missed progressing by a point playing Portugal to a draw and Spain to a 0-1 loss. In their last two friendlies, they defeated Uruguay and drew with Senegal, two teams ranked above Iran by FIFA. In this group, Team Melli are the wildcard, the squad the three others should keep an eye out for, lest they sneak past.
The USA is traveling to Qatar with arguably their best national team ever. The Yanks have been spectacular when it mattered most, winning the latest CONCACAF Gold Cup and Nations League both against Mexico. But their form dips and soars and the team is very vulnerable on defense when it dips and strong all around when it soars—but, all relative to their competition. The problem for these young guns is that they do not play top national teams often and despite their players’ European club experience the national team arena, and in particular the World Cup, is very different. A team can barely afford but a single down game in the cup. Draws with El Salvador and Saudi Arabia in their last two friendlies are concerning and if they do not pick up their game, any, if not all of the other three teams, will beat them.
England—the highest-ranked team in the group are poised to progress barring a catastrophic collapse or an unexpected super performance by one of their three adversaries. There are three issues here: first, England are not good enough to afford to make the mistake of underestimating their rivals, and often they have. Second, in today’s international game teams are self-contained and hard to intimidate. So that each of England’s matches will require the Three Lions to be on top of their game and if they slip each opponent is capable of making them pay.
The third issue is that their three particular group mates have a history, whether historical or relatively new, of feeling a contest against the UK is not just a winnable one, but one that they are particularly motivated to go after. That motivation may come from criteria within and/or outside the sport. This bodes well for the minnows and not so well for the big boy. Coach Southgate will have to prime his charges to be their sharpest on game day. If the lads are sharp, they will progress, if not they will be embarrassed. Papa has his doubts the team will be as ready as they should be.
Wales—is playing this cup without much pressure save the need to not be embarrassed themselves. They feel that other than their kin, the other two opponents are beatable. If Gareth Bale can provide a moment or two of brilliance per game, the Welsh can ride his coattails to surprising results. That said, the team is so weak in so many departments that it is difficult to see how they would progress short of that dream-like scenario.
Iran—are a good national side and fear no one. They are capable of some strong performances as they showcased in Russia’s World Cup in 2018. The question is going to be will the many returning cup players meld into the force they can be, particularly on the counter. The team and national football program have been in turmoil and coach Carlos Queiroz’s main job has been to find a means of unifying and calming what is plausibly Iran’s best team in decades. The political turmoil back in Iran cannot but negatively impact the squad, another Queiroz concern. But, if the coach can find a way to soothe his charges’ psyches, the Iranians will be a thorn in the side of their more glamorous opponents. The question is: will their best be enough for them to progress?
USA—this is the group’s enigma team. If Berhalter puts his top talent on the pitch, in the right formation, and with the right tactics, and the likes of Pulisic, McKinnie, Reyna, Weah, Dest, and company play to their top potential, the Yanks will progress with some level of ease. If they do not get the formula right in time they will falter. They are not good enough to have a so-so World Cup and make it out of their group. Given their poor closing performances, one would think heartbreak is what US fans have in store, but because this is the Yank’s last and best chance to globally showcase their talent, and place their nation on the map as a serious team ahead of hosting the cup in 2026, the USA players will themselves put it all together on the pitch, play well, and move on to the knockout round.
English language soccer media perspectives
Here is ESPN’s take on England:
“Under Gareth Southgate, England have become a team that performs at major tournaments…reaching the World Cup semifinals in 2018 followed by runners-up spot, after a penalty shootout defeat against Italy, at Euro 2020. England are on an upwards trajectory and developing into a team that could go all the way this year. Can they keep the ball well enough to control games against the best opponents and is Southgate bold enough as a coach to win a major tournament? The answer to both questions was ‘no’ at Euro 2020, but even if England do not win in Qatar, they should reach the semifinals.”
Here is Yahoo Sports (prescient or predictable?) take on the Yanks:
“The USA seems like the ultimate high-ceiling, low-floor team. In the best-case scenario, the starting lineup is full of rising stars at top European clubs who find grooves in a finely-tuned tactical setup and charge to the semifinals. In the worst case, those same stars sputter…and they don’t win a single game. For what will likely be the youngest team of the 32, both scenarios are entirely possible.”
Here is wales247.co.uk’s take on the Welsh team’s prospects:
“In the most likely of scenarios, Wales would finish in 2nd place in Group B and face the winner of Group A, the Netherlands. Following a 1-0 win over Ukraine and holding an ultra-talented team like Belgium to a 1-1 draw during the UEFA Nations League competition, Wales is an underdog you cannot overlook during this year’s FIFA World Cup.”
Here is an article by the New York Times on the political situation in Iran and its impact on their national team.
“…six weeks before the World Cup in Qatar, the Iranian national team’s star forward has suggested that he and his teammates are subject to what is in effect a gag order, warned that even commenting on the protests might cost them their places on the team. Unable to speak publicly, Iran’s players prepared for their final tune-up game…with what amounted to a silent protest instead, covering their jerseys in black jackets during the[ir] national anthem.”
Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)
As the English-language media on both sides of the pond cover the teams of the English, Welsh, and Yanks, only the Iranian media are mentioned here. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the local media—covering in Persian—in Iran are hard to reach since most of their news websites are being blocked by their government.
The Teheran Times, an English-language publication, reachable online, had a recent sports article in which the national team coach, Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, at a press conference, lamented the lack of preparation time for his team. But the questions soon turned to the protests going on and the coach commented on the political situation and in particular the protesters’ campaign to have FIFA kick Iran out of the cup due to the current poor treatment of women in Iran. Queiroz responded: “Most of the Iranian people have a clear answer to this campaign. They want their national football team to participate in the 2022 World Cup, and this answer is enough for this campaign.”
Sundry and/or Intangible
Among the things that differentiate the four teams in this group are that England and Wales have the regular opportunity to compete against top national teams in the Euro and Nations League while Iran and the USA do not. Iran has played Uruguay (a 1-0 win) and Senegal (1-1) but will not have played a European team or any other South American side prior to reaching Qatar. The USA has played Morocco (3-0), Uruguay (0-0), Japan (0-2), and Saudi Arabia (0-0) but no European or other South American team either. Thus, when speaking about levels of preparation and outcomes of games one must keep the competition in mind.
England is nursing a number of serious injuries to key players (Kyle Walker, Reece James, and Harry Maguire as of this writing) and in 2022 they are an uninspiring 2W-3L-3D including 0-1 and 0-4 losses to Hungary in June and storming back from 0-2 down in London to take a 3-2 lead only to concede at the 87th minute and end up in a 3-3 draw with Germany last month in the UEFA Nations League. As World Soccer put it: “England’s hopes of silverware have faded during a difficult 2022…[but as any good English publication would, they ended with…] –but don’t rule them out yet.” Not a ringing endorsement.
Iran’s national team are a good side, but their psyche must be a mess. With all that is happening back at their home, it is a wonder they can concentrate on football. They seem to be in an up-and-down phase right now which is why Queiroz is so intent on team preparations for Qatar. Losing to Algeria (1-2) must be contrasted with their win over Uruguay (1-0) 90 days later. But it will be their matches against Nicaragua and Tunisia in mid-November that will provide the final tune-up and team barometer, yet neither opponent should push the Iranians much. This leaves them where they were prior in no man’s land.
Wales has had a tough 2022 with a 2W-5L-2D record with particularly poor performances in losses to Poland (1-2, away and 0-1 at home). But the year had its silver lining. First, their other matches were against Austria, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and twice against Holland and Belgium, so the Welsh team has been well-tested. Second, none of their losses to the better teams was a blow-out and against the Red Devils, they managed a draw at home while scoring away in both of their losses to Belgium (1-2) and the Dutch (2-3). Compared to the prior two group teams above the Welsh are arriving relatively content and healthy, things that bode well for The Dragons.
The USA is dreaming big and often playing like they are ready to earn their illusions. In some games, they play great, in others their defense puts them in an early hole from which it is difficult for the team to climb out. One can only fantasize that if their best eleven could just, for a decent stretch, have been played as a unit, they might have had a chance to jell. But for many reasons—injury, scheduling, poor coaching—they rarely did and had to wing it often. The USA’s weakest link, other than their defense, is their coach who seems unable to find the right starting lineup or game strategy against a given opponent, and who reacts poorly to in-match dynamics. So, the team will be winging it once more in Qatar and all US fans can do is hope the players figure things out on the fly and on the pitch.
Here are the Yanks’ lineup (4-3-3) and subs against Japan in their 0-2 friendly loss in Germany: 1-Matt Turner; 2-Sergino Dest (20-Reggie Cannon, 46), 3-Walker Zimmerman, 5-Aaron Long (16-Mark McKenzie, 46), 6-Sam Vines; 4-Tyler Adams, 8-Weston McKennie (17-Malik Tillman, 67), 14-Luca de la Torre (15-Johnny Cardoso, 67); 11-Brenden Aaronson, 9-Jesús Ferreira (24-Josh Sargent, 46), 21-Gio Reyna (13-Jordan Morris, 46).
And here is the tale of the tape, from the USSF website: “In the 24th minute Japan’s Hidemasa Morita took a ball at the arc and drew three USA defenders, leaving Kamada alone on the left. Morita squared the ball and Kamada hit a first-timed curling shot around Turner’s diving attempt to the right side of the net. At the 88th minute, Kaoru Mitoma took a ball on the left flank some 40 yards from goal, and advanced into the box, turning two defenders before curling a shot beyond Turner’s out-stretched dive to his left.”
All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or those absences have been substituted for adequately, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group B might unfold come this winter.
The Three Lions were unlucky to begin their campaign against the one relatively unknown opponent in their group. Not only have they not played each other much but few Iranians play in the top European clubs. So, the English are not familiar with their individual players either. Because of that and the fact that injuries and latent feelings of inadequacy combine with the reality that despite their talent their Euro run was home-based and greased by officiating largesse, the lads will stumble out of the blocks and need all of their talents to recoup. The Iranians, sensing their opponent’s disarray and disbelief and somehow overcoming their own, counter at will during the Three Lions’ possession dominance and Team Melli make those forays pay off. In the end, the English team, with Grealish and Foden scoring, will consider themselves lucky not to have lost and the Iranians will feel lucky to have taken a point off of their betters.
Both teams know this is one of their two big group chances and they come out playing tough and well. But the Yanks simply has more talent and, in a game where everyone has come out on the right foot and played to their potential, only a Bale score has kept the Welsh in contention. McKinnie and Pulisic put their personal scoring stamp on the cup and the Yanks rise to the occasion bringing home the critical win.
The Iranians are feeling cocky after their near win against England and let their guard down enough for Bale to assist on an opening score. But Team Melli straighten out in the second half and a quick counter sees Mehdi Taremi score to draw the teams’ even and bring Iran closer to a potential knockout slot.
In the upset of the tourney so far, the Yanks pull out a victory for the ages with Weah and Dest announcing their presence and canceling out Kane’s opening score. The Brits, still reeling from a bad start, come in believing they need to win and will easily steamroll the Yanks. In the first twenty minutes, they just about do it taking a 1-0 lead. But the ghosts of old come back to haunt them and having gone to the locker room with a lead the young English lads come back on the pitch with a sense that their job’s already been done. Thus, in a momentary loss of concentration, they allow Weah to get in behind their lines to score a brilliant breakaway goal bringing the sides even early in the second half. The remainder of the half becomes a chippy, protracted affair with chances galore going begging until a set play and the Brits’ second defensive blunder allows Dest to head home the late winner. The Yanks rebel successfully.
England finally put it all together and of course, it is against their kin. In a match that showcases the Three Lions’ pent-up frustrations the entire front-line scores and only Bale is able to produce a beautiful personal response. Though Bale’s goal is the pick of the bunch it is the only Welsh consolation as the English leave the pitch victorious if praying for the Iranians to stumble in their last match. The Welsh, though, leave the cup having played to their potential and with their talisman tallying some memorable scores. Upon their arrival at Cardiff Airport, the welcome-back-home partying will still be genuine and spectacular.
With the ghosts of prior sport and politico-military confrontations lurking, the match gets underway with immediate intensity. Knowing only a win will see them through the Iranians come all out on the attack and the Yanks suffer an early 0-1 deficit. But, as the first half comes to a close Gio latches on to a Pulisic through-ball-assist to level the scoring just before the two teams head to the locker room. The second half seems a carbon copy of the first with Team Melli going all out and getting another score three-quarters of the way through the match. But the Yanks are not willing to let their well-performing opponents have the pleasure of eliminating the Yanks’ cousins from across the pond, and substitute Brenden Aaronson provides the closing score, off a McKinnie assist, eliminating the Iranians and pulling the Brits along for the ride, in second place.
In the end, the Yanks again rebelled successfully.
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. USA 2. England.
Photo: Gio Reyna, Shutterstock ID: 2147480941, by Vitalii Vitleo.