Four years ago, Japan were on the verge of knocking out Belgium and advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals. This time, they began with arguably the biggest shock result they have ever garnered, over four-time world champions Germany. But their 2-1 win owes a lot to this side’s ability to remain calm and make the sort of substitutions that change games.
Having gone a goal down after goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda conceded a needless penalty, in a first half which saw Germany create little, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu nailed all his substitutions. Kaoru Mitoma offered creativity and invention down the left; Takuma Asano was a whirlwind of energy and precision; Takehiro Tomiyasu offered the kind of stability at the back that allowed Japan to be more attacking and Takumi Minamino (in his own, sometime sloppy way), wreaked havoc and played a big part in the equalizer.
Japan went from the counter-attacking approach of the first half to a far more intense pressing game in midfield and a hit-in-transition style that rattled Germany. I’m not sure they could have turned it around were it not for the five substitutes.
2. Germany’s lopsided attack fails
Germany finished the game with Mario Gotze, Youssoufa Moukoko and Niclas Fullkrug up front. In other words, a onetime phenom who had been written off three years ago and is only now making a timid return, a guy who only turned 18 on the day the World Cup started, and a guy winning (at 29) only his second Germany cap.
This was coach Hansi Flick’s Plan B, and that must be a serious concern. Flick had to turn to Plan B because Plan A consisted of a bunch of pieces that don’t quite fit together.
Kai Havertz was perennially stuck between following instructions and following instinct; Thomas Muller drifted slowly to the right flank and got in Serge Gnabry’s way. Meanwhile 19-year-old star Jamal Musiala showed glimpses of brilliance, but was relegated to an area out wide on the left which does little for his immense talent.
The focus will be on Germany’s uncharacteristic collapse and defensive errors from Nico Schlotterbeck and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (conceding at the near post.) But fundamentally it was a function of Germany’s front six being unable to control the game in the second half (Plan A). And that Plan B is the equivalent of trying to fix Thanksgiving lunch with stuff you might pick up at the gas station.
This is a tournament that continually harkens back to the past, so it’s pretty much inevitable that the spectre of what happened in Russia 2018 — with Germany exiting in the group stage for the first time in its post-war history following defeat to South Korea — will now be a talking point.
And, indeed, if you throw in Euro 2020 — when Germany went out with a whimper in the first knockout round against Gareth Southgate’s England — there will be plenty of self-doubt creeping in.
This is not a familiar position for Germany and the German public. They need to remember that, scary as Spain may be (or may not be … it’s tough to tell what you get with Luis Enrique), they control their own destiny. The good news? Costa Rica and Spain, the other sides in the group, play an entirely different brand of football. The bad news? If Germany play the way they did after the break, it won’t make much difference.
Much as you’re tempted to pick substitutes like Mitoma or Asano, it was Ito who offered the most both in transition and in disrupting Germany’s build-up. Quality and quantity together … what more could you want.
WORST: Nico Schlotterbeck
It’s not just getting beat like he did on the second goal (maybe he figured Neuer had it covered, well.. he didn’t), it’s the way once Japan raised the tempo in the second half, his positioning and clearances became increasingly erratic.
Highlights and notable moments
The row over FIFA’s threat of sanctions over the OneLove armband continued as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was checked thoroughly prematch, Germany players placed their hands over their mouths during a team photo and German minister Nancy Faeser snuck hers past security to sit next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
After the match: What the players and managers said
Germany coach Hansi Flick: “Niklas [Sule] simply has to pay attention. He played him onside because he dropped two or three steps too far. These are individual mistakes that we had to pay for today.
“We had 78% possession in the first half and deservedly took the lead. In a phase in which we were superior, we had a lot of chances to score, but we didn’t take them. Japan beat us with efficiency today. The individual mistakes that we made in the second half must not happen to us. We need to build up the players now. We won’t have a nice trip home.”
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu: “At the end they came at us with the full power, in the past maybe we would have lost but the players have been playing in Germany and Europe they’ve learned so much from that, so we held on. United as one, we needed to hang tough until the final whistle went and we were able to grasp our opportunity.”
“We wanted to start aggressively, we wanted to dominate the game but Germany are very strong so we needed to defend persistently and take our chances. In our tactics, we had many options and looked at many scenarios. We knew there was a chance we could go a goal down, we planned for it, we prepared for it.”
Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda: “It was very difficult we were struggling a lot. But this is a World Cup, everyone wants to play. The subs came on and re-energised the team. Maybe one player is not that strong but together we were able to do it.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
– The last time Germany scored a penalty goal in regulation time was when Thomas Müller converted against Portugal in the 2014 FIFA World Cup group stage.
– Gundogan’s goal was the 12th penalty Germany have scored (in regulation/extra time) at the World Cup — third-most by any nation. And 5 of Gundogan’s last 6 goals for Germany have been penalties.
– This is the 68th World Cup match in which Germany have scored the first goal, the most by any team. (Brazil – 67 – play on Thursday.)
– Japan had never won a game at the World Cup when allowing the first goal (0-7-2, W-L-D.)
– Germany were unbeaten in their previous 21 World Cup matches when leading at half-time – 20-0-1 (W-L-D). Their last loss when leading at half-time at the World cup was in the second group stage vs. Austria in 1974 as West Germany.
– Asano’s goal was Japan’s latest game winner at the World Cup.
– It was Germany’s second straight match at the World Cup losing to a team from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Their last match at the 2018 World Cup was a loss to South Korea. Prior to these two straight losses, Germany had never lost to a team from AFC at the World Cup.
– It was the first time two substitutes have scored for an Asian team in a World Cup match.
– Japan closed as a +600 underdog at Caesars Sportsbook.
Germany: It was meant to be the game that potentially decided who tops the group, but after Germany’s loss to Japan they meet Spain at theAl Bayt Stadium on Nov. 27 at 10 p.m. local time / 2 p.m. ET. A bad result means Germany could be out early.
Japan: Costa Rica are next up for Japan at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium from 1 p.m. local time / 5 a.m. ET, where they could make a real push for top spot.