Some people were in the square. They thought it was all over. As it was, and with the 11 Japanese players joined by the rest of the squad, everyone poured across the grass of Khalifa Stadium and headed for the corner in euphoric, exhilarating celebration of their greatest victory of all time. The turnaround, it seemed, wasn’t limited to the substitutes who overtook Germany in a remarkable final half-hour.
The lively Japanese were enlivened by the amazing performance of Shuichi Gonda’s quadruple save, by the goals scored by substitutes Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano, by the sudden feeling that what seemed a routine win for Germany was becoming the kind of opportunity it will be , driven to be remembered for decades. “A historic win, to say the least,” said her manager Hajime Moriyasu.
He expressed surprise. He modestly attributed Germany’s humiliation in part to German influence, dating back to Dettmar Cramer, who, like Flick, was a coach of European Cup-winning Bayern Munich. The Japanese goalscorers practice their craft in Germany, but for Freiburg and Bochum, not for Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. Meanwhile, Flick complained about how un-German his site was. “They were more efficient today,” he said. His team had 71 percent possession and 17 shots. You met once. They were found to be defective in both boxes.
“We are brutally disappointed,” said Flick. “We had 78 percent possession of the ball in the first half and deservedly took the lead. In a phase in which we were superior, we had many chances to score, but didn’t take them.” That was connected to sloppiness at the back. “We made mistakes that we should never make at a World Cup,” added Flick. “We have to defend better”
The main culprits were Nico Schlotterbeck, who was dismissed by Asano for the winner, and Niklas Sule, who had played him on the side. Choosing a bulky, lumbering centre-back as right-back had previously felt questionable; Takumi Minamino jumped behind Sule to equalize. Full-back roles seem to have appeared as problem positions for Germany most of the time since Philipp Lahm’s retirement, but Sule and Schlotterbeck are symptoms of a lack of top-class centre-backs, apart from Antonio Rudiger. The renunciation of Mats Hummels should have been expensive.
It may not have been Flick’s only dubious decision. His original game plan seemed to be paying off, but Moriyasu was the architect of ingenious substitutions, while Flick’s changes may have weakened Germany. With Ilkay Gündogan he replaced a player who gave Germany the advantage in midfield with Joshua Kimmich. Dropping Jamal Musiala spared Japan further agony at the hands of the teenager.
Musiala, Kimmich and Gündogan contribute to the fact that Germany has a halfway convincing team. They are blessed in much of midfield, on the wings and for potential No.10s. They are well equipped for goalkeepers, as Manuel Neuer’s ultimately inconsequential miracle save showed, but they lack defense and a centre-forward. The missed opportunities reflected a lack of recklessness. Kai Havertz jumped in as a striker, was denied a goal and, not for the first time, flattered the deception. Germany had an expected goals average of 3.3, their biggest loss in a World Cup match since 1966.
It wasn’t the only historical element. The last time Germany lost a World Cup game on goal was the quarter-finals in 1994: Jordan Letchkov’s victory gave the Bulgarian a place in football folklore far beyond his homeland. The same fate could await Asano, not least because of the quality of his eighth international goal, be it the stunning first touch or the wild finish. Back to 1994, and having reached the last three finals, Germany possessed an aura of invincibility. There is a sense of fragility as they face their second consecutive Group Stage elimination.
There were echoes of the 2018 loss to South Korea. Germany was again caught counterattacking. Control gave way to chaos again. Neuer ended up far from his own net: four years ago on the left wing, in the Japanese penalty area, now when trying to head in corners. Neither trick proved successful.
Flick shrugged off the comparisons to the Korea game, arguing he wasn’t involved at the time. His experience of humiliating results was more like that of the winner. He was Bayern coach when Barcelona were destroyed 8-2. The sobering World Cup defeat on his CV is Brazil’s 7-1 defeat by Germany when he was Joachim Loew’s assistant.
Now he is Löw’s successor and instead of trying to emulate him with the world championship title, he could only become the third German national coach after Sepp Herberger in 1938 and Löw in 2018 to fail at the first hurdle. “With this defeat and no points, we are under pressure, there’s no question about that,” said Flick. ‘It’s our fault’ And the blame will only increase if a defeat by Spain on Sunday seals Germany’s fate.