DOHA, Qatar — After Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina, Qatar 2022 saw not just another upset, but another come-from-behind upset with the supposed minnow upending the heavy favorite.
Germany went ahead in the first half via a Ilkay Gündogan penalty, but substitutes Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano struck in the last 15 minutes to turn the tie on its head.
Japan’s 2-1 victory underscores just how shaky this Germany side have become, particularly when they appear in control.
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1. Japan subs make a huge difference
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 one-time 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 Germnay’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.
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3. Germany can’t afford another slip
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.
Germany: Neuer 5, Sule 6, Rudiger 6, Schlotterbeck 4, Raum 6, Kimmich 7, Gundogan 6, Gnabry 6, Muller 5, Musiala 7, Havertz 5.
Subs: Goretzka 5, Moukoko 6, Hofmann 5, Gotze 5, Fullkrug 5.
Japan: Gonda 6, Sakai 7, Itakura 7, Yoshida 6, Nagatomo 5, Endo 7, Tanaka 7, Ito 8, Kamada 6, Maeda 5, Kubo 5.
Subs: Minamino 6, Asano 8, Tomiyasu 8, Mitoma 8, Doan 7.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Junya Ito
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.
On the pitch, Germany’s David Raum was fouled by Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, possibly even twice, resulting in a penalty for the opening goal.
But Japan turned things around late in the second half. And how did this go in?
After the match: What the players and managers said
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 team 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 the Al Bayt Stadium on Nov. 27 at 10 p.m. local time / 2 p.m. ET. A bad result and 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.
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