Gareth Southgate warned his England players their World Cup progress will end early in Qatar unless they cut out the sloppiness that crept in towards the end of Monday’s 6-2 win against Iran.
England opened up their Group B campaign in Qatar in stunning fashion as they comfortably rolled past Iran, leading 3-0 in a stoppage-laden opening half before adding three more goals after the break.
Bukayo Saka hit a double and Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish added the other goals in Doha, with Mehdi Taremi scoring twice for Iran.
Southgate was not pleased with the manner in which his side allowed Iran to score both goals – and admitted England will have to up their game in their next game against the United States on Friday.
“We’re really pleased to start the tournament in this way and really pleased with our attacking play,” he said. “We know that Iran are difficult to score goals against so it’s a credit to our players of the movement, the quality of our passing and finishing.
“At the end of the game, to concede two goals the way we did is not the level we need. We need to be better than we were today against the USA because they will be coming for us full throttle. We will have to reset.
“I don’t like games that drift and there were so many added minutes in both halves. I understand games drift, but that won’t be enough for us to progress. We still have a lot to do to qualify.”
Southgate plays down Maguire and Kane concerns
Despite the dominance in the scoreline and the territory, with England enjoying 78 per cent of the possession, there were reasons for concerns when captain Harry Kane and defender Harry Maguire picked up second-half knocks.
Kane went down in the 48th minute after a challenge from Iran defender Morteza Pouraliganji and – after being replaced in the 75th minute – was seen with light ankle strapping on his leg after the match.
Maguire, meanwhile, went down with illness after Taremi scored Iran’s first goal and was replaced immediately by Eric Dier.
Speaking about the defender’s withdrawal, Southgate said: “He felt ill and he had flagged it just before the goal and given the state of the game, he felt there was no point carrying on. Other than that, I haven’t seen anything of concern.
“I think Harry (Kane) is fine. It looked a bad tackle but he carried on in the game and we took him off because he felt there was a moment we could do that.”
Saka: Love after Euros penalty miss makes me confident
The headlines from game were dominated by Saka’s two-goal heroics, with the Arsenal winger playing in his first major tournament match for England since his penalty shootout miss in the Euro 2020 final.
In July of last year, Saka missed the crucial spot-kick against Italy at Wembley to give them victory and the forward was subjected to racist abuse online along with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, who also missed in the shootout.
Recalling that moment after the Iran match, Saka said: “It’s quite a while ago now but it’s a moment that has been with me and will be with me forever.
“But I feel so blessed and grateful to have coaching staff, not only here with Gareth and England – but also at Arsenal. My friends and family who put my arm around me and the love of my team-mates and the nation to help me get back into a good place.
“When I feel that love around me, I feel confident in myself. When I put on an England shirt, I always put in 110 per cent and do my best to do my nation proud.”
Southgate: England players shouldn’t have to deal with OneLove issue
Off-field issues dominated the build-up to the Group B opener with England announcing just three hours before kick-off that Harry Kane would not wear the OneLove armband at the World Cup in Qatar.
Sky Sports News revealed Kane and the eight other captains of national teams set to unveil the armband would likely receive sporting disciplinary action from FIFA due to a breach of tournament rules, namely a yellow card or potentially a one-match ban for the skipper.
Instead, Kane walked out with a ‘No Discrimination’ armband made by FIFA, while every England player took a knee before kick-off in supporting of equality and inclusion.
Speaking about the OneLove controversy, Southgate said it is not fair on the England players to be distracted by it and the group’s focus is on playing well at this World Cup.
“It’s not something myself and the players have been involved with in the last 24 hours,” the England manager said. “Those discussions have been ongoing between several European nations and FIFA.
“I do understand FIFA’s situation in that you can set a precedent and it’s difficult where to draw the line. I think in an ideal world, that would have been a much clearer situation earlier.
“It has not been a distraction for us. We had to focus on the football, we can’t be involved in that now. We have to concentrate on performances and training, especially the players. It’s not for them to have to deal with that.
“People know who we stand for, people know this group of players. We took the knee as we felt we could make a difference. There are other things where we can’t make a difference, so we have to channel our energy in other directions.
“Every coach has the right to focus on the football. There are other issues we want to speak about, for 12 months we have done that. But this is a World Cup.
“We won’t refuse to answer anything and there’s nothing I won’t speak about, but the predominant part of my energy has to be on preparing the team. Other people at our federation have to deal with other issues. It’s not the responsibility of the players, they didn’t decide where we are. That’s my feeling at the moment.”