Ritsu Dōan celebrates equalising for Japan against Germany. (Image: Japan National Football Team)

A game of two halves saw Japan roar back against Germany to claim a famous come-from-behind victory.

Germany entered the 2022 World Cup with a point to prove coming off its worst showing in its tournament history in 2018 along with a disappointing Round of 16 exit in the Euro Tournament. Germany’s last World Cup campaign ended at the hands of AFC opposition South Korea and a very similar proposition awaited the 2014 World Champions in Qatar for their first game in the form of Japan.

Those with a long memory would remember Germany dominating territory against South Korea, something evident in the possession statistic with Germany occupying three times as much of the ball as its opposition. Despite bossing the ball, Germany could not make that number count, instead, South Korea got the chance to punish its European adversaries with two injury-time goals that condemned the at-the-time defending Champions to the “Champions’ curse” of an early flight home.

One of the big issues Germany faced in the 2018 World Cup was the lack of balance in its midfield. The combination of Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Mesut Özil oozed quality, but the three players could not functionally co-exist. Catastrophic results against Mexico and South Korea were characterised by Germany’s high possession statistics contrasted to its lack of goals.

German coach Hansi Flick showed he learned from his predecessor’s midfield deployment errors and fielded three different midfielders with defined roles. One thing Germany lacked in 2018 was a clear defensive midfielder, with both Khedira and Kroos more adept in box-to-box roles. Similar to 2014, Germany reverted to a defense-first midfielder in Joshua Kimmich, previously a fullback.

Teen sensation Jamal Musiala was given license to create in what used to be Mesut Özil’s position as an attacking midfielder, with Manchester City’s İlkay Gündoğan deployed in a box-to-box role, ensuring there is a strong connection between defence and attack and extra cover when required.

Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu, as he so often does, set up to defend and with a goal to catch his side’s more fancied opposition on the counter. The plan looked viable with Germany making a few early uncharacteristic errors and Daizen Maeda even opening the scoring before being called offside.

As the first half went on, Germany dominated possession as it did in the last World Cup, but looked a lot more likely going forward, with Japan requiring last-gasp defensive efforts to keep the ball out. Japan’s good work was hampered when a Joshua Kimmich ball into the box found left back David Raum who was subsequently fouled by goalkeeper Shūichi Gonda.

Stepping up to the spot, İlkay Gündoğan made no mistake to give the favourites the lead. Japan continued setting up deep regardless of the score line and was punished at the death of the first half by Kai Havertz who put the ball in the back of the net, but like Maeda earlier in the first half, he was judged to be offside.

Germany’s midfield plan was working a treat and Hansi Flick’s side entered half time unfortunate not to have killed off the game. Just like Saudi Arabia showed the previous day against Argentina though, Japan was not going to accept defeat, regardless of the stature of its opponent.

Japan’s inability to crack Germany’s dominant midfield led coach Hajime Moriyasu to make a halftime change which in turn triggered a change in formation. Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu was subbed on as a third central defender in the place of winger Takefusa Kubo, thus Japan transitioning from four defenders to three permanent defenders with two wingbacks.

The substitution meant that Germany could no longer use its midfield dominance to easily overload Japan with its advancing fullbacks, something that led to its first-half goal. The change also signalled a change of focus for Japan who chose not to engage in the losing midfield battle, instead putting effort into exploiting Germany’s wide areas.

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When Takuma Asano was brought on for Japan ten minutes after the restart, he was able to take advantage of Germany’s high line of defense and remain onside throughout second-half attacks. Asano had a handful of chances that were handily dealt with by Germany, but the warning signs were there.

Japan’s confidence kept growing and Manuel Neuer was called into action, the goalkeeper’s trademark heroics keeping Germany ahead, but it did not last long. Minutes later, an attack originating from the left side saw German-based Japanese international and second-half substitute Ritsu Dōan pounce on another Neuer saved to equalise for his country, the winger having previously scored against the Bayern Munich goalkeeper in the Bundesliga.

With the game entering its final 10 minutes and Japan getting increasingly more ambitious in its hunt for three points, Takuma Asano, another German-based player, produced a moment of individual brilliance that will not be forgotten in Japan any time soon. The forward firstly managed to remain onside against the high line, his silky first touch from a long-range pass directed the ball toward the German box, before his excellent finish combined placement and power to stun the favourites putting Japan ahead for the first time.

The match finished with the contrasting emotions of jubilation for Japan and shellshock for Germany. This result is an awfully familiar one for Germany, whose loss to South Korea just four years previously played out in an awfully familiar way.

Despite the positive signs, Germany showed in the selection and on the field in the first half, the 2014 World Champions proved to be fatally inflexible to the changes Japan imposed on them. In back-to-back World Cup games, Die Mannschaft has now lost to Asian opposition and if they are not careful in their coming games, they may find themselves in the same disastrous situation it did in 2018. Few can imagine Germany’s showdown against Spain will be any easier.

In the past 48 hours, Saudi Arabia and Japan have shown that highly-regarded nations may continue underestimating Asian countries, but they will be punished for it as the quality of football in the continent is on the rise. It was never going to be easy for Japan to come out of a group with Germany and Spain, but Hajime Moriyasu’s side has now placed itself in a position of power after its first group game and will head into its game against Costa Rica with a chance to seal its Round of 16 ticket if results go its way.

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