There were many different answers in the Germany section of the Khalifa International Stadium mixed zone, but the question was always the same: What the hell had happened out there?
It’s one thing to play badly and lose. You get what you deserve, you move on. To play well — or at least well enough — for three quarters of a match to win it but somehow find yourself in a “horror scenario” at the final whistle, as Thomas Muller put it, is much harder to take. Unnecessary, avoidable and entirely self-inflicted, this really was the worst kind of defeat for any football team, due to its corrosive effect on morale. Hansi Flick’s men learned that they cannot trust each other on Wednesday night.
Muller warned that this was “not the time for pointing fingers at each other”, but it proved impossible not to do so after this night of auto-destruction. Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan was the most critical commentator, perhaps because he had personally done the least to bring about that shattering disappointment while on the pitch and had subsequently watched the nightmare unfold from the bench.
The 32-year-old found flaws in all key areas of the match, starting with a lack of decisiveness in attack. “We had enough chances to score two or three goals,” he lamented. His midfield team-mate Joshua Kimmich concurred. “With the amount of opportunities we had, we should have killed them,” the 27-year-old said. “But we let them live. We have to be more effective in front of goal.”
Leon Goretzka took heart from the fact that his club team Bayern, the side who provide most of the starting XI for the national team, had faced similar problems this autumn but found winning ways by rediscovering that “greed and conviction” in front of goal. What the midfielder didn’t say was that Julian Nagelsmann, his manager in Munich, had helped the team by putting in an orthodox striker in Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, who scored 12 goals in 15 games and proved a valuable presence in the box. Sadly, he plays for Cameroon. Flick only has international novices Niclas Fullkrug (Werder Bremen) and Youssoufa Moukoko (Borussia Dortmund) available, neither of whom has any experience of playing for Germany. Their combined number of previous competitive matches before last night stood at zero.
At the other end of the pitch, it was just as bad. “We gifted them two goals, the second was maybe the easiest ever scored at a World Cup,” Gundogan said, shaking his head. Takuma Asano’s narrow-angle strike had come from a simple punt deep inside the Japan half. Real Madrid’s Antonio Rudiger and Nico Schlotterbeck (Dortmund) were trying to play the VfL Bochum-based striker offside. Niklas Sule (Dortmund) wasn’t. Schlotterbeck didn’t fully realise the gravity of the situation until it was too late.
“We switched off and didn’t defend it to the end,” said Manuel Neuer, who also could have done a little better to save the shot. Gundogan was at a loss to explain his team conceding a goal that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Sunday league pitch in terms of the defenders’ doziness. “I don’t know how that can happen,” he said.
Most damning of all, however, was Gundogan’s assessment of Germany’s problems in the build-up once Hajime Moriyasu’s team started pressing them high up the pitch. “It felt as if some didn’t want the ball anymore, you have to show for it, move away from your opponents. I don’t know if it was lack of maturity or quality but we didn’t have solutions.”
File under: ouch.
Neuer went down the same dangerous path, coming close to openly doubting some of his team-mates’ ability to cut it at this level. “We were totally dominant in the first half, but when they pressured us higher up, we didn’t play out with total confidence. Not everyone showed for the ball. We put ourselves under pressure with weak passing and made Japan stronger. Before the break, every pass had carried a message. I can’t understand why we didn’t carry on. Those are the basics that everyone needs to possess if they are playing for Germany.”
Pushed to specify further, he refused to name names but it’s safe to deduce he didn’t have his fellow Bayern players in mind.
Lastly, everyone agreed that Germany should have been able to close out the game in a much calmer, balanced manner at 1-0. “The game cannot be this open,” Kimmich admitted. Their collective lack of composure in the face of Japan’s ascendancy felt positively unserious in comparison with the group stage pragmatism of the 2014 World Cup winners.
Nobody said it, of course, but confidence in the manager will have taken a bit of a hit as well. Halfway through the second half, at the very moment that the game was slipping from Germany’s grasp, Flick first brought off Gundogan, their best player on the night, and then the creative linchpin Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich), who had at times single-handedly tormented Japan’s back-line.
Goretzka and Jonas Hofmann, their respective replacements, are fine players, but without the Pep Guardiola-educated Gundogan in particular, Germany lost the calmness on the ball that had seen them dominate possession to the point of setting a new record in the first half.
422 – Germanys 422 completed passes before half-time are a new record for any team in a first half of a match at the World Cup, since beginning of detailed data collection 1966. Secure. #GERJPN #FIFAWorldCup pic.twitter.com/ZUvvYuT50T
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) November 23, 2022
Things became progressively more wild as the search for a second goal turned into a search for winner and then into a desperate hunt for an equaliser. By the end of the game, Flick threw on strikers Fullkrug and Moukoko, the youngest player in German World Cup history. Like the late introduction of Mario Gotze, the 2014 World Cup winner who had last featured five years ago, these measures smacked of desperation rather than careful consideration of the needs of the situation.
Unwanted memories of the group stage exit in 2018 are inevitable in the next few days. On that occasion they had lost their first game against Mexico. Players will be eyeing each other suspiciously, too. If defenders can’t rely on attackers to take their chances, attackers can’t rely on defenders not to give away silly goals, and some wonder whether their team-mates are truly up to the task at hand, genuine optimism will be hard to come by.
“The situation is similar to 2018 and it feels bad,” Muller conceded. “Not because it’s the very same situation but because you know that in football, results aren’t always controllable. You can’t simply order two wins. But we have the quality and the confidence to beat Spain and Costa Rica.”
Luck and form can change quickly. More than a decade of contesting the biggest trophies in football have taught Muller that you can’t throw in the towel just yet. “We will pull ourselves up,” he vowed. “There’s no more buffer, we will have to win. The knock-out phase has started early for us.”
It has, but with one crucial difference: a draw against Spain on Sunday won’t take Germany to extra-time. It will probably take them straight home.
(Photo: INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)