Japan came from behind to shock Germany after a dramatic 2-1 victory in the opening match of Group E, earning their very first win against their European counterparts in the process.
Hansi Flick’s side had taken the lead through a first-half Ilkay Gundogan penalty but after some timely second-half substitutions, Japan stormed back through goals from Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano to kickstart their 2022 World Cup campaign in triumphant fashion.
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This is now the second consecutive World Cup in which Germany have lost their opening group game after a 1-0 defeat to Mexico in 2018, a tournament that saw them crash out of the group stages while attempting to defend the trophy.
With Spain awaiting in just four days, the Germans now face a very real challenge just to make it through to the knockout rounds. But where did it go wrong for them against Japan?
After a decade of Philipp Lahm until his international retirement in 2014, it must be difficult for German fans to accept their situation at right-back, where only makeshift options are available – including the clunky Niklas Sule, the squarest of pegs in the roundest of holes.
Sule’s selection caused Germany far more problems than it solved against Japan, not least because he played Asano onside for the winning goal with some atrocious positioning. While a very consistent centre-back, Sule offers very little as a modern full-back, even if it does allow David Raum to get further forward on the opposite side.
Flick’s decision to play Nico Schlotterbeck wasn’t vindicated, either, as he looked extremely shaky throughout. The obvious answer to this is to move Sule into the middle of the defence and Joshua Kimmich out to right-back, with his Bayern Munich midfield partner Leon Goretzka coming into the starting lineup. Both Kimmich and Flick, however, seem reluctant to revert back to this – even as it is clear it would greatly benefit the team.
Kai Havertz has been far from a prolific goalscorer since moving to Chelsea from Bayer Leverkusen and struggled yet again as a lone centre forward against Japan. While he excelled as a false nine for Leverkusen, he has failed to recapture that form since moving to England and doesn’t appear physically strong enough to lead the line for his country.
Gone are the days of Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose, focal points and constant menaces in the penalty box. Havertz, by contrast, just doesn’t provide this and too often occupies the same spaces as other midfielders, leaving nobody to get on the end of crosses or through balls. Whether Niklas Fullkrug – having a fine season at Werder Bremen but inexperienced at international level – is the answer remains to be seen.
Outside of Havertz, Germany weren’t clinical enough when they were presented with chances and it’s unclear whether this stems from complacency or a lack of confidence. Both Serge Gnabry and Gundogan were too quick to take on shots when teammates were better placed, uncharacteristically poor decision-making that was probably a result of them feeling the goalscoring burden.
Simply put, Hansi Flick lost the battle in the dugout. Japan’s Hajime Moriyasu responded boldly at half-time with his team down 1-0, changing from a back four to a back three and pushing his wing-backs up the pitch. They were then eventually replaced by genuine wingers, offering an even greater attacking threat.
By contrast, Flick eventually replaced his three most dangerous players – Jamal Musiala, Gnabry and Gundogan – and in doing so completely nullified Germany. The game was wide open in the second half but only Japan seized the gaps and the initiative as a result of Flick’s hesitancy.
This was a game made for Leroy Sane, a player who could have taken full advantage of the space Japan were leaving on the wings when the game became stretched. Sane would have been a surefire starter for Germany if fit and his absence, in the end, was glaring.
Musiala, Gnabry, Muller and Sane combine to devastating effect for Bayern Munich and would make up Germany’s strongest front four. While, as mentioned, there is no true poacher among them, as a collective they have proven themselves to be able to rotate across the forward positions to devastating effect, such is their understanding honed at club level.
Sane’s pace and directness were sorely missed, with only Raum offering any true width. Not to mention the fact he has 10 goals in 19 games for Bayern this season.
Since their imperious march to a fourth World Cup in 2014, Germany have failed to instil the same fear and respect into opponents. This is particularly evident after their disastrous 2018 World Cup, which included defeats to Mexico and South Korea, and a disappointing performance at Euro 2020. In World Cup qualifying last year they lost to North Macedonia, in the Nations League they were beaten at home by Hungary.
This is not the same ruthlessly efficient, big team for the big occasion Germany we are used to seeing. Teams know their backline is vulnerable and sense weakness. In fact, Germany seem to know it too, and as soon as Japan equalised you felt as though they would go on to win the game, such was the reaction (or lack thereof) of the German players.
Mentality is a hard thing to recapture. It’s not always possible. Flick must find a way to do so and restore the same kind of arrogance, determination and nervelessness that made them World Champions. Germany often seemed to win the psychological battle before even stepping on the pitch. Now, the opposite seems true.