The 2014 champions Germany had a record-equallingly bad time of things at the 2018 World Cup, and now history may be repeating itself.
The pressure on the German men’s national team has started to feel existential these last couple of years. During the summer, they dropped the ‘Die Mannschaft’ nickname over concerns it may be perceived as ‘arrogant’. After failing to get past the group stage of a World Cup for the first time in 80 years in 2018, and with their Euro 2020 adventure ending abruptly at Wembley in the last 16, there had been an air of despondency hanging over them heading into a tournament that hasn’t been particularly high on good vibes.
And now, despite having taken a first-half lead gifted to them by some heroically ill-thought-out goalkeeping, they’re staring into the abyss after just one game again. 2022 isn’t shaping up to be any better than 2018 was on the basis of this performance or result.
With a full-blown row now at the point of breaking out between FIFA and the nations prevented from wearing their ‘OneLove’ armbands, the German team warmed up in training tops with rainbow-coloured sleeves and then covered their mouths for the team photograph. The subsequent pictures have already flashed around the world. The German team can take considerable pride in their own comment on the atrocious way in which the governing body are handling all of this. It remains to be seen which other nations will follow them. Pressure will almost certainly build upon England to do so, as it should.
For much of the evening, Germany looked uncharacteristically uneasy. The high press was present and correct, but this was prog rock football rather than heavy metal. The passing seemed slightly ponderous and meandering, as though no-one really wanted to wrestle ownership of taking a chance.
Japan seemed prepared for this and were happy to sit deep. When they did break, it was invariably on the right-hand side and usually ended with the wrong ball being played in the vague direction of the penalty spot.
And when lady luck is smiling upon you it’s best to take your opportunities, as Germany did after 32 minutes following some reckless goalkeeping from Suichi Gonda. With Hiroki Sikai having gone absent without leave on the right side of their defence, Joshua Kimmich’s angled pass found David Raum in a lot of space inside the Japan penalty area. Gonda had a go at Raum’s ankles once but the forward got away from him, but at the second attempt he was successful with what looked like a pretty determined effort to concede a foul. Ilkay Gundogan reaped the reward from the penalty spot.
But there’s no doubt that Germany aren’t the finished article yet, and the biggest gap is at the head of their attack. In stoppage time at the end of the first half, there came an example of the striker’s nous they’re missing. When Kimmich’s shot was parried to the feet of Serge Gnabry, the Bayern Munich forward opted a low pass across the face of goal and Kai Havertz turned the ball in from close range, only to be pulled back for an obvious offside.
Havertz is a talented player, but he is not A Number Nine. A Number Nine would have known to hold his position for a second to ensure he wasn’t offside when that ball was played across. Instead, the goal was chalked off and Germany’s lead remained fragile. That lack of a completely reliable goalscorer might not cost them against a middling side like Japan, but it’s difficult to believe it wouldn’t come back to bite them against better opposition later in the tournament.
It was reminiscent of that moment when trailing against England with ten minutes to play in the second round of Euro 2020, when Thomas Muller was put through on goal and shot wide. Five minutes later, England were two up and Germany were out of the competition. Had Muller taken that chance, Germany would likely have forced extra-time. That’s the difference having A Number Nine gets you.
The warning signs were there. Germany saw four shots saved by Gonda in the space of 20 seconds, but Japan broke quickly and Germany were dependent on a brilliant save from Manuel Neuer and Sakai blazing the ball over from the rebound. But it was a brief respite. Soon after, Takumi Minamino’s low shot was parried by Neuer, but on this occasion their luck ran out. Ritso Doan lashed in the rebound.
It was well-deserved. Germany had ceded too much control in the middle of the pitch and allowed Japan a route back into the game, and the substitutions – Minamino and Roan had only been on the pitch for five minutes between them when they combined for the equaliser – tipped the balance decisively.
Their tails up and Germany now looking haunted by the ghosts of their last World Cup misadventure, Japan grabbed the lead with eight minutes to play when Takuma Asano – another second-half substitute – raced through on the right side and shot into the roof of the goal after holding off a challenge from Nico Schlotterbeck.
Japan didn’t fluke this win. They were the match of Germany throughout the entire 90 minutes, and fine second-half substitutions tipped the game in their favour. They’ve been consistent qualifiers for the World Cup since 1998, and the country has developed a vibrant football culture from almost nowhere over the last three decades. They deserve their win, and will now be optimistic about reaching the second round of the competition for the second time in a row.
But Germany suddenly find themselves in deep trouble at the bottom of their group. Against Japan, they displayed a lack of confidence in themselves when they had the chances to kill the game off with a performance that summed up the misgivings that some of their critics had expressed before the tournament. There certainly seemed to be little improvement on the unwanted record-breaking class of 2018. Next up are Spain, and that’s a stiff challenge at the best of times. These do not look like the best of times for Germany.