Twice in two days! At the Khalifa Stadium in the west of Doha, Hajima Moriyasu’s magnificent Japan did to Germany what Saudi Arabia had done to Argentina, coming from behind with two second-half goals to defeat one of the tournament favourites.
On a day when it was reported that Denmark was ready to discuss pulling out of Fifa, the continent Gianni Infantino accused of 3,000 years of crimes was once again confronted with evidence of its dwindling potency. For the second successive World Cup, Germany have lost their opening game. Results like this and Tuesday’s are suggesting the world’s most populous continent is still under-represented at the World Cup.
This was a different kind of match from Argentina’s defeat to Saudi Arabia. If that was a team with energy and a plan overcoming a team that had neither, this was a clash of two system teams in which the one that stayed focused ultimately prevailed.
The day before the World Cup began, Jürgen Klinsmann gave a surprisingly withering assessment of the standard of international football, at least for a guy who was sitting there in his capacity as a member of Fifa’s technical committee. The level of international football had now fallen far behind the club game, he said. “If you play against a club side you will lose, because the rhythm of the club side is far more detailed”.
Klinsmann, therefore, believed that having a big block of Bayern players in their squad was going to be an advantage for Germany. The 26-man Germany squad has seven current Bayern players. You might remember the 23-man squad that failed at Euro 2020 last year had eight, and it didn’t seem to do them much good. But then they brought in the Bayern coach, Hansi Flick, to replace the stale Joachim Löw.
The composition of Japan’s squad is quite different, with 26 players from 24 clubs across eight different countries. Yet Moriyasu’s commitment to his system is such that the gifted Celtic forward Kyogo Furuhashi was left out of the squad because the coach believed he was too individualistic to execute the game plan.
Instead Moriyasu picked Kyogo’s hard-running Celtic team-mate Daizen Maeda to lead the line at the top of a formation that was notionally 4-2-3-1, but in reality for the first half was 4-5-1 as Japan chased German shadows.
In the opening period Germany did a passable imitation of Bayern, with İlkay Gündoğan and Joshua Kimmich running the centre and the four forwards looking slick and confident, especially the 19-year old Jamal Musiala, who produced a brilliant nutmeg with his very first action in a World Cup.
Japan’s midfielders sat in a deep line protecting the space in front of their back four. Germany’s approach was simply to run directly in there from the sides using their tricky dribblers, Musiala and Serge Gnabry, and then exploit the resulting chaos.
The left back David Raum is key to Flick’s attacking plan, racing forward to create a free man on the wing with every attack. Around 30 minutes Gündoğan chose to shoot when Raum was free inside the Japanese area, but a couple of minutes later Kimmich spotted him on another raid and chipped a diagonal ball over the Japanese defence. Raum controlled, turned and was then bundled over by goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda for a penalty – the sixth awarded in 10 World Cup matches so far. Gündoğan sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.
From this point things looked difficult for Japan. Their tightly-organised defence simply could not cope with Germany’s ability to change the point of attack with rapid first-time combinations. Kai Havertz’s goal just before half-time was ruled out for offside, but the attack had involved so many players moving in from so many angles that the Japanese defenders didn’t know where to turn.
The second half seemed likely to offer more of the same. Musiala nearly scored an incredible individual goal with a shuffling run through the penalty area. Gündoğan hit the post. Gnabry went close with a header, then shot with Havertz screaming for a cross four yards out. The second goal wasn’t coming but Germany seemed confident.
Maybe even a little too confident. In the 64th minute there was a strange moment when Antonio Rüdiger shepherded a ball out of play against the challenging Takuma Asano while running with a kind of high prancing strut, grinning as he trotted back into position. He looked a man who was too sure of himself to pay attention to the determination in Asano’s eyes.
Unnoticed by Rüdiger, Japan were now beginning to play. In the first half they had only had a few counterattacks, but at half-time Moriyasu switched to a 3-4-3 and now they were seeing much more of the ball. With Raum running forward, and Niklas Süle tucking into midfield when Germany were in possession, Japan had identified the space on either side of the German centre backs as the weak spot to target.
On 73 minutes they created their best chance so far. After putting together a few passes in the German half, midfielder Wataro Endo floated a ball into the area where Junya Ito had peeled away from Rüdiger. The forward’s quick shot was saved brilliantly by Manuel Neuer, and Germany were lucky that the rebound fell to Hiroki Sakai, who shot like a true defender high over the bar.
If this was a warning for Germany, they failed to heed it. On the sideline, Moriyasu had been busy, subbing in Doan Ritsu for Ao Tanaka on 71 minutes, then on 75 Takumi Minamino for Sakai. As soon as Minamino took the field he combined with his fellow substitute to devastating effect.
That first Japanese goal, on 75 minutes, gave Germany a taste of their own medicine, as a forward picked the ball up wide, then drifted infield in front of the defence with unpredictable intent. With Süle and Leon Goretzka seemingly hypnotised by Kaoru Mitoma’s snaking outside-to-inside run, Minamino ran diagonally from inside to outside, losing his marker and attacking the space outside Rüdiger. Mitoma slipped the ball through the gap, Minamino’s shot was parried by Neuer, but Doan was there to smash in the rebound.
The second goal eight minutes later was shocking in its simplicity. In short, Germany stayed still while Japan moved. Centre back Ko Itakura paused in his own half and saw Asano making a run from deep, aiming for the same space Minamino had targeted, behind the full back and to the side of the centre backs.
Itakura played a simple straight ball which Takuma controlled brilliantly, getting himself in front of Nico Schlotterbeck, who was too worried about conceding a penalty to make a meaningful challenge. Neuer stood tall guarding his near post but the Japanese substitute somehow smuggled it past him into the top corner from a narrow angle.
Should Neuer have come out to narrow an already impossible-seeming angle? Maybe he was remembering what happened the last time he played an Asian team in the World Cup, when he lost the ball playing as an attacking midfielder 70 yards from his own goal and South Korea ran down the other end to score into an empty net.
Still, it was hard to fathom how Germany had let this happen after that dominant first half. Rüdiger’s apparent pisstaking lent weight to the theory they had been lulled into a false sense of superiority. As Saudi Arabia’s coach Hervé Renard pointed out after beating Argentina, top teams should not make these kinds of mistakes – and yet they do all the time. “If you are Lionel Messi, the motivation is not the same when you play Saudi Arabia as when you are playing Brazil. That is normal, that is football,” Renard said.
On Sunday Germany face Spain with survival on the line. If that can’t get their attention for the full 90 minutes, nothing will.