Game 20 of the FIFA Men’s World Cup began with both teams having realistic hopes of progression to the knockout stages given their positive results from the first round of games. Spain drew a thrilling six-goal encounter with European Champions Portugal and Iran extended their impressive defensive record with a shock 1-0 win over Morocco.
Under the guidance of Carlos Queiroz, Iran had one of the best qualifying records for the 2018 World Cup which saw them concede a mere two goals in their last 13 qualifying matches. The distinguished Portuguese coach is well-renowned for his defensive diligence, especially from his time as Manchester United Assistant Manager, and his tactical abilities had been on full display in Iran’s first two games in Russia.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of Iran and how their defensive shape almost led them to a famous result against a team ranked 27 places above them. This analysis will also study how Spain overcame the difficulties Iran posed.
Spain manager Hierro, appointed two days before the start of the tournament, made two changes to the line-up that started the 3-3 draw with Portugal. Keeping with their traditional 4-3-3 formation, the fit-again Real Madrid right-back Carvajal replaced Nacho, scorer of a fantastic volley vs Portugal. Atletico Madrid’s Koke lost his place to Vazquez who started in the right forward position with David Silva moving to central midfield. David de Gea kept his place goal despite his error for Ronaldo’s second goal in the first group game.
Iran made three straight swaps to the team that defeated Morocco 1-0 in their first group game. Hosseini replaced Cheshmi at centre-back, Ezatolahi replaced Shojaei in defensive midfield and Taremi came in for Jahanbakhsh in right midfield. Queiroz stayed with the effective 4-1-4-1 formation used against Morocco with the aim of frustrating Spain.
Iran’s defensive structure
Whilst in possession Iran played something of a 4-3-3 formation with the wide midfielders pushing on to support the striker, however, with only 27% possession they neither had the ball long or often enough for this to be shown. The vast majority of the game was spent in what could be regarded as a 4-1-4-1 but as Iran’s “striker”, Armoun, was at times positioned closer to the Iran goal than Spain’s central defensive midfielder Busquets, it was more realistically a 4-6-0 that moved to a 6-4-0 depending on Spain’s movement in wide areas.
Iran had no interest in pressing Spain in Spain’s half, so they dropped off into a mid-block and invited their opposition onto them. When the ball was kept centrally, Iran kept a tight diamond midfield, denying Spain the space required to play into this midfield area and cutting off passing lanes into striker Diego Costa. Spain very rarely used long diagonals over the top of defences, so Iran’s back-line was comfortable holding this line with Iran’s wingers staying with their midfield.
When Spain looked to pass the ball into wide areas with their advanced full-backs, Iran’s wingers dropped to make it a 6 at the back. This allowed Iran’s right and left-backs to stay within the width of the 18-yard box giving them the opportunity to cover the half-spaces where Spain’s midfielders can be so dangerous
Iran’s compactness resulted in Spain moving the ball from side to side but not quickly enough to cause Iran too many concerning moments, especially in the early stages of the game. On the rare occasions that Spain’s passing and movement managed to create a passing opportunity into Iran’s diamond, Iran’s midfield collapsed onto the ball, either winning possession or deliberately fouling to stop the game.
Iran were successful in setting traps for Spain to play into the wide areas. By remaining compact in the centre of the pitch and with an angled body shape, they forced Spain to play into their isolated wide forwards. When Spain did this slow enough (especially Iran’s right side), it was a trigger for Iran to press with intensity and overload Spain in that section of the pitch. As soon as possession was won, Iran looked to hit long balls in behind Spain’s very advanced defence.
Iran in Possession
Iran were risk-averse in the extreme on the rare occasions they had the ball. Whilst there were clear patterns in their play, the main instruction for Iran’s players seems to have been to not give the ball away in their own half and not allow any interceptions. Very seldom did they play even the safest of passes backwards to an open teammate. Instead, it was either a long and high (to avoid interceptions) ball towards the striker or, if this was not an option, dribble and invite a foul.
Often teams that deploy an expansive passing and high pressing game, as Spain do, opt to deliberately foul the opposition to stop a counterattack when they are at their most vulnerable. However, on this occasion, it seemed to be a deliberate ploy by Iran to draw fouls to stop the game. Incredibly, despite the disparity in possession, both teams committed 14 fouls.
Iran clearly thought their best chance to score would be through a set-play and it was at these at which they were most adventurous in sending numbers forward. Indeed, they had the ball in the back of the net in the 64th minute from a free-kick but the goal was disallowed for offside. As well as corners and free-kicks in Spain’s final third, throw-ins were treated as goal scoring opportunities. Iran set up for all three in a similar, simple but effective way.
At least six players crowded the area between the six-yard box and penalty spot with one or two players outside at the edge of the box. All the deliveries were delivered high to be attacked at the edge of the six-yard box. This was perhaps to exploit David De Gea’s weakness in coming out to collect high balls. Three or four players swarmed the area where the ball looked to be dropping, whilst three looked to pick up any second balls – two dropping off and one running ahead of the ball.
With the defending Spanish players usually dropping off towards their own goal and being put under physical pressure by the Iran players attacking the ball, any headed clearances would not travel far. This resulted in shooting opportunities for Iran’s two players who dropped off to ringfence the ball. These shots were hit firmly and with their first touch. This made sure Iran at least got a shot at goal during the attack but also lessened the risk of a counter-attack either by holding onto the ball too long whilst trying to create an easier shooting opportunity, or by De Gea being able to hold onto a shot and launch a quick counter-attack.
The perceived threat of set-plays, particularly throw-ins, seems to have guided how Iran took their goal-kicks. Whilst this could have been a ploy simply to get the ball as far away from the Iran goal as possible or to try gain possession high up the field, the outcome was more often possession via a throw-in than an Iran player having control of the ball in open play.
Here we see the goalkeeper aiming to put the ball on the head of the left-winger Ansarifard. Ansarifard who has a height advantage over right-back Carvajal moves towards the ball to head it on. As Ansarifard moves towards the ball, the striker runs in behind him to try and collect the ball or at least put the covering defender under pressure. Whilst it did not result in many open play possessions, it did create throw-ins which were one of Iran’s main threats.
Spain in Possession
In the 54th minute, Spain took the lead through an unfortunate deflected clearance that ricocheted off Diego Costa and into the corner of Iran’s net. The circumstances of the goal, coming after a Spain corner kick, highlights the effectiveness of Iran’s defensive organisation during open play. As the ball was cleared from Iran’s box and their players pushed up out of the danger area, they could not regain their diamond shape quickly enough. This meant when Iniesta (circled below) beat Iran’s initial press there was no one to collapse on him. The Barcelona star exploited this space that had appeared for the first time in the match and put Diego Costa through on goal.
In reaction to Iran’s well-organised low block, Spain began to try and exploit the spaces to the sides of Iran’s diamond midfield. Whilst early in the game this played into Iran’s hands as it allowed Iran to overload and press the wide player on the ball to regain possession, Spain later adapted their play to overcome it.
During the opening phases of the game, as shown above, as the left or right central midfielders received the ball, the wide forward would make an inside run into the half-space with the full-back overlapping. The wide forward’s aim was to create space on the outside for a pass into the full-back or to receive the ball in the half-space. However, this was ineffective for several reasons.
In this example we see the switch of play is too slow, so Silva is pressed as he receives the ball and Iran’s midfield can keep their diamond shape. Also, the Iran left midfielder drops back with the Carvajal to make a back 6, allowing the Iran left-back to follow Vazquez. Iran’s left centre-back is also spare so can help the left-back should Vasquez receive the ball.
As the game progressed Spain both pushed their lines of attack higher up the field and committed more players to the attack. Carvajal and Alba stayed high, almost as forwards, to allow Vasquez and Isco to play in the half-spaces giving Spain an overload in midfield. Spain’s central midfielders playing higher meant they could switch the ball quicker as the ball had less distance to travel which opened up Carvajal and Alba.
Since Iran were not playing with a striker during their defensive phase, Spain were able to progress a centre-back into midfield. As in the example above, Pique brought the ball out of the centre-back position, forcing an Iran midfielder to engage him. Once an Iran player was drawn towards him, he passed to Busquets. Busquets, Isco, and Iniesta linked, using their numerical advantage to switch the ball to Alba who was able to get beyond Iran’s back four and cut the ball back. By putting players in these more advanced positions, Spain created more opportunities than they had before and stopped Iran being able to pin them in wide areas where they were losing possession early in the game.
Iran’s defensive structure and game plan must have worked as well as they could ever have expected. They managed to keep Spain from breaking them down almost the entire match and only conceded when, in one moment, they were out of their shape as a result of a set-piece and Spain showed how clinical they can be. The 4-6-0 greatly narrowed the gulf in quality between the two teams and Iran’s discipline showed why their defensive record is so good.
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