For the second World Cup in a row Germany began their campaign in disastrous fashion, frittering away a first half lead to lose 2-1 to Spain. Suddenly, the champions of 2014 face the very realistic prospect of a second straight exit at the group stage, a self-inflicted crisis that was as much about disastrous defensive work as it was the excellence of match winner Takuma Asano.
Every metric would point to Germany having been a vastly superior side for the 75 minutes before Ritsu Doan fired Japan back to parity, but the sense was of a profligate team who lacked a killer instinct at one end and composure at the other. Japan showed both in abundance and although there is plenty of work to be done in escaping a group that includes Spain and Costa Rica they are superbly placed to do so. Unlike Hansi Flick’s side they do not look like a team liable to give anywhere near as many easy chances away as their opponents do.
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At the outset, Japan might have seen precious little of the ball in the first half but they showed an impressive sense for hunting down possession. Daizen Maeda could have sent this game down a very different path in the seventh minute but, after fine work from the Japanese midfield to pick the pocket of a dawdling Ilkay Gundogan, the Celtic striker made his move too soon to slot in past Manuel Neuer.
Those half openings came Japan’s way more than once in the early exchanges, as did ever-expanding spells of German possession. Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich would drift from flank to flank, pulling the Japanese backline with them. Indeed almost the entire team seemed to have been dragged out to the right in the 31st minute, with a swipe of his right boot Kimmich dropped the ball onto the feet of David Raum. Shuici Gonda clipped them soon after, the one major error in a resolute defensive display from this team, and Gundogan made him pay from the penalty spot, though as the second arrived the Japan goalkeeper would do all that could be asked of him to repay the debt with a wonderful double save off Serge Gnabry.
Kai Havertz could have wrapped the game up before the interval, but allowed himself to drift offside as he met Jamal Musiala’s cross/shot. That profligacy gave Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu a chance to change the game. He seized it. Moving to a back three allowed the Blue Samurai to apply far greater pressure down the flanks whilst maintaining the energy they had shown in the first half. Moments after Manuel Neuer’s stunning save denied the dangerous Yunya Ito and Hiroki Sakai guided over the rebound, Germany’s captain could only deflect Takumi Minamino’s cross away from the certainty of an Asano goal to Doan, who provided it instead.
Japan’s winner began in prosaic fashion, something of a nothing ball into the channel turning into a supremely effective pass thanks to Niklas Sule standing two yards behind his German team mates, playing Asano onside. There was still plenty for the former Arsenal striker to do, killing a 60-plus yard pass with one touch and easing the ball above Neuer from a tight angle.
Leon Goretzka fired inches wide in seven minutes of added time but Germany looked just as likely to hand Japan a third, repurposed right back Sule clumsy in the extreme with the ball at his feet. In a desperate last heave, the captain and goalkeeper came up for a barrage of set pieces in the closing seconds but Gonda held firm, amends more than made.
Moriyasu turns the tide
This was a game won in the Japan dressing room in the half time interval. Switching out winger Takefusa Kubo for Takehiro Tomiyasu, who plays as a center back for his national team, might have seen a cautious approach on paper but Moriyasu’s switch gave his players the maximum opportunity to exploit Germany’s weakness. Now operating in a 3-4-3, Japan had the width to test Sule and Raum, neither natural full backs, with the wing backs eating up the yards to ensure that Flick’s response of leaving Musiala and Gnabry high was not as effective as it might have been.
For the half hour that followed Moriyasu kept adding fresh legs, not only using the maximum number of substitutes, but also the most moments available to him to add something to the team. Match winner Asano was a pressing dynamo more than willing to chase lost causes… and turn them into something in the case of Japan’s second goal. Kaoru Mitoma might have worn the No.9 but he covered the hard yards as a left wing back, slipping through Minamino, whose cross came to Doan. Three substitutes had turned the tide, another scored the winner. However, the real matchwinner was on the bench the whole time.
Musiala makes his mark on World Cup
If those around him had not been so profligate, it might have been Musiala taking home the man of the match trophy on his World Cup debut. Playing off the left he was a devastating presence for Germany, his innate understanding of space opening up driving lanes for his full back whilst he slipped infield for give and goes with his fellow midfielders. He was always looking to commit defenders and seemed pretty capable of beating them; had he found the net after beating five Japanese defenders, he would have been celebrating one of the great goals in the history of this tournament.
Changes may well be needed for this Germany frontline, even though it created plenty of chances today. Havertz offered little as a center forward and though those behind him performed effectively there did no seem to be sufficient variety in Flick’s attack. Eventually Japan concluded that they could allow their opposition to flick the ball around in front of them and trust that those intricate passing displays would not quite come off if there was not a top striker to finish them. Whatever happens against Spain – when Leroy Sane could be available – Musiala has to stay. At the tender age of 19 he was the player his teammates turned to.