Iran are going into this year’s World Cup as clear underdogs. But, unlike in past years they have an attacking star, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, to complement their defensive gameplan.
At the 2014 World Cup Iran were long shots to make it out of the group stage, and that hasn't changed this time around. Against Portugal and Spain, the giants of their group, their best chance at doing something noteworthy will probably be through the same compact defensive style they played last time. It's a successful style, one which allowed zero goals during the final round of AFC qualifying until the last matchday. Unlike 2014, however, the attacking talent at Carlos Queiroz's disposal will be more formidable when it comes time to spring counter attacks against opponents.
Iran's biggest star is Jahanbakhsh, the man who tore through the Eredivisie this past season and finished as the league’s top scorer. His performances helped AZ Alkmaar reach 71 points and a 3rd place finish in the table, their highest point tally since winning the title in 2008–09. Watch AZ Alkmaar’s attack and you realize how much it flowed through Jahanbakhsh. Both his monstrous individual shot and creation numbers, 4.5 shots per 90 minutes and 2.5 key passes, demonstrate the dual threat he brings to the table.
It’s undoubtedly true that the wide expanses of open space that exist in the Eredivisie helps attacking players put up big numbers, but there’s still a lot to like about Jahanbakhsh’s creativity. Not only does he pass the statistical test in terms of volume of chances created, but he also passes the eye test in how he creates those chances. Despite having license to drift around, he largely sticks to the wide areas on the right, presenting himself as a passing option. He’s a willing crosser, delivering a high volume of aerial balls for teammates, even if sometimes he'd be better off taking a more efficient option. If the cross isn’t available, he’s good at creating cut backs or hard driven crosses near the edge of the penalty area. He has the ability to find teammates when they’re making runs past an opponent’s defensive line, and even uses more simple passes like basic lay offs effectively. His locker is overflowing with a large catalog of passes and he has the confidence to show them off.
In general, Jahanbakhsh's passing was quite good this season and there's something to appreciate about how willing he was to try high danger passes. He's great at weighting his passes into the penalty area perfectly so that his teammates can make the additional pass that leads to a shot, similar to how Kevin De Bruyne ran the show with Manchester City this season. Should this be the summer where Jahanbakhsh leaves the Eredivisie, his passing would be his most translatable skill.
It wasn't just his strong passing ability that made Jahanbakhsh a standout figure this season. He also took a lot of shots and scored a lot of goals as a result. Jahanbakhsh is a prolific dribbler, and he constantly makes opponents look silly despite not being a speedster. He was quite adept at creating shots for himself through both galloping runs and shuffling his feet with the ball to evade defenders and set up a shot. Hopefully that particular skill will translate to the World Cup and he'll put some poor unsuspecting defenders on skates.
There are things to like about what Jahanbakhsh could bring to the table for teams looking for wide players: dynamic passing skills, fludity with his dribbling to create shots for himself or others, but there are flaws to Jahanbakhsh’s game. Because of the heavy usage that he was entrusted with, his shot selection definitely emphasized quantity over quality. It’s fair to wonder how good he’ll be if asked to play a lesser role on a team like Napoli (who he’s been linked to previously). While he used his left foot for combination dribbles and the occasional shot, he only took 11.2% of his shots with his left foot this season and 18.7% over the past four seasons so it’s probably safe to say that he won’t bring extra value for being two footed. Despite the obvious grace that he has when at full bloom and the coordination he has on the ball, it’s still hard to call him an elite athlete, and that might be an issue against higher level competition if he does make a post World Cup summer move. It's hard to tell exactly how much of his impressive numbers, should be chalked up to the massive talent disparity that exists in Holland between the top and bottom clubs along with the defensive frailties in the league.
The odds of Iran making it past the group stage are low all things considered, with Portugal and Spain the odds on favorite to finish 1st and 2nd in some order and Morocco more likely to spring an upset than Iran. That doesn’t mean that Alireza Jahanbakhsh can’t make a name for himself in the three group stage games he’ll get. We’ve seen numerous players in the past who have used a good World Cup showing to catapult themselves to bigger clubs, even if some of those players didn’t have much of a resume preceding those World Cup performances. Jahanbakhsh is different. Although you can poke some holes in his resume, he was arguably the best player in the league and the biggest reason why AZ Alkmaar had their best season in nearly a decade. His contract runs until the summer of 2020 which means that the club could get a big enough transfer fee should they opt to sell. And, if Iran do the unthinkable and make it out of this group, there's a good chance that Jahanbakhsh will be a big reason why.
Images provided by the Press Association