Iran vs. the United States of America, was an interesting match up with all to play for as both teams vied for a ticket to the knockout stages. This is a small review done as part of a fun project by a large group of Japanese (mainly J.League related) tactical writers who are trying to write a report for every single game of this 2022 World Cup in Qatar. You can check out the special web page for the project here. For those unfamiliar, I mainly write big mid-season and season end reviews for the J.League filled with both tactical and data insights. My most recent blog post was the 2022 J.League Season Review.

I could talk about the geo-political stuff surrounding this game but someone else on the project already has, you can read it here (it’s in Japanese though).

Anyways, this will be a fairly short review due to time constraints.

Let’s get started!

The Situation So Far

Iran had a miserable start to their World Cup campaign as they were swatted aside by a dominant England team who easily broke through their deep block defense. However, against Wales they played much better and were creating quite a few chances even before Wale’s goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy got sent off.

USA had a good 1st Half against Wales but struggled to deal with Kieffer Moore’s physical presence and were pushed back and conceded an equalizer in the last 10 minutues of the game. Unperturbed by this, they really played well against England and barely conceded chances on top of being able to control the ball somewhat themselves. Still, with only 2 points on the board the USMNT absolutely needed to win against Iran.

tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Iran counterattacked in small numbers and caused some early transition scares but gradually ceded control of the match to the USA who pushed back and then stretched Iran’s blocks of 4 using the width provded by the Full Backs. USA created several good chances and eventually scored a well-worked goal. In the 2nd Half, Iran couldn’t break down USA’s defense and usually resorted to inefficient long balls down the channels. USA tired considerably but a shift to a back 5 with Walker Zimmerman led to a victory with Iran looking very uninspired throughout.



Unlike in previous games for the USMNT, Weston McKennie started on the left side of the midfield 3 rather than on the right. Like against England, the USA can shift between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 depending on the positioning of Christian Pulisic on the Left.

Iran were largely unchanged from the Wales game except for Alireza Beiranvand who returned in goal after a concussion in the first game vs. England while Ali Gholizadeh came in for the suspended Alireza Jahanbaksh.

1st Half

Iran started ever so slightly better in the opening 10 minutes or so. Clear idea to simply counter attack with only 2~4 players at a time for safety. There was a bit of the passing combinations in central areas like in the 4th minute, but this was pretty much the only time in the game that I can remember Iran doing this and otherwise resorted to the counterattack (7th, 16th, 33rd, etc. minutes).

4th minute: pass combinations centrally and spread wide for low

Most opportunities for Iran didn’t turn into chances as even in the moments where they got into the box, both the final pass was lacking and the USA had numbers in the box to cover. I imagine their xT would be higher (even if only slightly) than their xG in this game. If the quick counter wasn’t on, Iran wouldn’t force the issue and pass it backwards to recycle possession (like in the 18th minute).

USA sought to play around Iran’s block in a 2-3-5-ish shape by overloading the wide areas with any one of the 3 midfielders dropping in closer to the Center Backs, while the Full Backs pushed high and wide to cause dilemmas for Iran’s wide midfielders. Should they follow the US Full Backs and let the dropping midfielders time on the ball? Or leave them to press McKennie or Tyler Adams? Iran chose the former and they were slowly pushed back into their defensive 3rd as a result.

2-3-5 shape, 36th

Still Iran had numbers in the box so even when crosses were launched inside they were cleared easily or on cut-backs there was usually Iranian defender to spare to block those passes despite the efforts of Josh Sargent to pull defenders away with off-ball runs.

Around the 20 minute mark, the USA started to control the game in their favor. Like in previous games, Yunus Musah and McKennie would drift out to the wide areas, McKennie would drop closer to the Center Backs as well as receive and dribble in the half-spaces. Meanwhile Musah would normally be pushed up a bit higher, exchanging positions with Tim Weah while trying to find opportunities to thread a ball wide to Sergiño Dest on the wing.

32nd minute: Weah-Musah-Dest

I feel like the idea for McKennie in left half-space was for him to cut in on his right foot and pass diagonally to Dest as well as combine with Pulisic and Antonee Robinson on the left. Pulisic made lots of off-runs and tried to create space for Robinson and McKennie but Ramin Rezaeian was tasked with man-marking him so it wasn’t that effective unless he was able to dribble past any Iranian player (like in the 27th minute). Antonee Robinson continued to be an outlet on the left wing, bombing up from Left Back.

32nd minute: McKennie switch to


Tyler Adams drove up field with the ball from his own half, going Right to Left and into the final 3rd as Iran opted to contain and retreat rather than attack Adams on the ball. Adams exchanged passes with Robinson on the left which pulled Iran’s lines over. Iran’s Right Back was preoccupied with Musah in the half-space and Iran’s Left Midfielder (Ehsan Hajsafi #3) didn’t keep track of Dest. As soon as McKennie receives the ball from Adams and shapes up to play the pass, Christian Pulisic is already making his run into the box, leaving his marker, Rezaeian, in his wake.

37th minute: McKennie cut to right foot and

2nd Half

Half-Time Substitutions:


  • Ali Karimi came on for the injured Milad Mohammadi in 1st Half injury time, Hajsafi shifted backwards to the Left Back spot while Karimi replaced him in midfield.

  • Saman Ghoddos came on for Sardar Azmoun: A bit surprising to haul off your ace striker in a must-win game but Azmoun’s defensive work left a lot to be desired and he also hasn’t been 100% fit since before the tournament so I guess that’s why…


  • Pulisic suffered a concussion when he scored, so Brenden Aaaronson replaced him.

USA started the half off by putting more pressure on Iran’s back line, their 1st Line continued to chase backwards against the Full Backs when Iran passed around them in the build-up.

2H: 2nd minute - Aaronson

Only real spark was Taremi and Ghoddos combining on the wings. Taremi would have multiple attempts where he was rather isolated and would cut inside on the dribble but Cameron Carter-Vickers was too strong and quick for him, especially once the USA moved to a back 5, the Americans always had a spare man to cover these runs in-behind.

2H: 8th minute - CCV
vs. Taremi

For the most part, Iran had no ability to pull USA defenders out of block. There was one interesting attempt by Mehdi Torabi, who dribbled diagonally from the Right to the Center against the grain of America’s midfield block and Iran were able to get the ball up to the box but there just wasn’t enough of these types of movements to worry the Americans.

2H: 76th - Torabi dribble

Even when Iran were able to get their Full Backs up high and wide on the ball, they had no 1v1 dribbling ability to get past USA defenders and get a clean cross off so it was largely ineffective. Indeed, for all of Iran’s attempts throughout the game, they only got their first Corner Kick in the 43rd minute… of the 2nd half!

Especially without Alireza Jahanbakhsh (who was suspended due to accumulating yellow cards), there really were a lack of attacking options for Team Melli in this game that could turn the tide. The usual attacking subs that people may be familiar with like ex-Wolfsburg Ashkan Dejagah were way too old now to even make the squad this time around. Surely, one of the 4 goalkeeper spots could’ve been given to an extra attacker or perhaps one of the many defenders Carlos Queiroz brought along?

Around the 80th minute, US manager Gregg Berhalter made his changes, bringing on Shaq Moore and Walker Zimmerman on for Tim Weah and Dest, turning America into a back 5. Along with Tyler Adams tracking back everywhere and chasing Iran players all over the pitch, the only real chance that Iran could muster after the US bunkered down was a header from a free kick on the near post in injury time.

2H: 41st minute -

What’s Next?

The United States of America advance to the Round of 16 right behind England, while Iran were eliminated having finished in 3rd place.

Click to show R code!

groupb_df <- data.frame(
  Rank = c(1, 2, 3, 4),
  Team = c("England", "USA", "Iran", "Wales"),
  Win = c(2, 1, 1, 0),
  Draw = c(1, 2, 0, 1),
  Loss = c(0, 0, 2, 2),
  GF = c(9, 2, 4, 1),
  GA = c(2, 1, 7, 6),
  GD = c(7, 1, -3, -5),
  Pts = c(7, 5, 3, 1),
  xG = c(5.2, 2.5, 3.6, 2.7),
  xGA = c(2.3, 3.1, 4.1, 4.6)
) %>% 
  mutate(xGDiff = xG-xGA)

groupb_table <- groupb_df %>% 
  knitr::kable(format = "html", 
               caption = "FIFA World Cup 2022: Group B") %>% 
  kable_styling(full_width = FALSE,
                bootstrap_options = c("condensed", "responsive")) %>% 
  add_header_above(c(" ", "Result" = 5, "Goals" = 3,
                     "Expected Goals" = 3)) %>% 
  column_spec(1:2, bold = TRUE) %>% 
  row_spec(1:2, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "green") %>% 
  add_footnote(label = "Data: & Opta | All xG values include penalties",
               notation = "none")


FIFA World Cup 2022: Group B
Expected Goals
Rank Team Win Draw Loss GF GA GD Pts xG xGA xGDiff
1 England 2 1 0 9 2 7 7 5.2 2.3 2.9
2 USA 1 2 0 2 1 1 5 2.5 3.1 -0.6
3 Iran 1 0 2 4 7 -3 3 3.6 4.1 -0.5
4 Wales 0 1 2 1 6 -5 1 2.7 4.6 -1.9
Data: & Opta | All xG values include penalties

The USA will face the Group A winners, Netherlands, next and I am a bit worried about them. My concerns are from how tired the US’s midfield looks after the amount of work they’ve put in throughout the group stages and the lack of quality bench options besides Kellyn Acosta (who along with the other Center Midfield depth in Cristian Roldan and Luca de la Torre, aren’t anywhere near the level of Musah/McKennie/Adams). Also in attack, my concerns lie in Pulisic’s concussion (even if on social media he said he’ll be OK for the knockouts) as well as the extent of Josh Sargent’s knee/ankle injury from that very unlucky landing. While a lot of things can be said of how USA were able to defend fairly comfortably in their own box (regardless of the quality of the opposition), in games like this you’d hope that there would be strikers in the team who could hold the ball up and create a bit more breathing space for the besieged American team in the 2nd Half. The fact that Haji Wright and co. couldn’t hold the ball up vs. Iran doesn’t bode well with better quality opposition in the Netherlands (with Van Dijk, de Ligt, etc.) on the horizon. Still, this team does have talent and they are also young. Whatever happens this will be extremely good experience for this generation of players heading into the World Cup on home soil in 2026.

Big changes will be needed for Iran, as most of their important players are close to 30 if not older (Beiranvand, Hosseini, Hajsafi, Mohammadi, Pourlaliganji, Rezaeian, Jahanbakhsh, Ghoddos, Nourollahi, Taremi, Ansarifard). Some will no doubt still be in the squad for 2026 even if they won’t be starters but it’s clear that a generational overhaul will be needed. Speaking of overhaul, will they keep going with Carlos Queiroz who only returned a few months before the World Cup? The Asia Cup is already coming next year (or most likely moved to early 2024 because it’s in Qatar…), so decisions are going to be needed somewhat quickly. This is especially pertinent when you consider that their World Cup preparations were rather poor with Queiroz himself only re-joining the team in September!

I’ll probably be writing another review for at least one of the knock-out matches. See you then and enjoy the World Cup!