DOHA, Qatar – There’s a 1980s Richard Pryor film called ‘The Toy’ in which Jackie Gleason’s character gives a speech to his son about the difference between “truth” and “reality.” Four decades later, Germany boss Hansi Flick might want to do the same.
The “truth” of their 2-1 loss to Japan is that they dominated possession (74% vs. 26%), scored more than 2.4 expected goals (plus one converted penalty) and Japan made some great saves from goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda , hit the woodwork twice and would have been home with a better finish ahead of Japan’s rousing comeback in the second half.
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The “reality” looks very different. For all their dominance in the first half, Germany only took the lead because Gonda gave them a penalty. All those shots – Germany had 26, Japan 11 – adding up to a swanky goal expectation? Well, 10 of them came from outside, which is rather suboptimal. Germany was defeated by Japan’s athleticism, stamina, strength and confidence, the very qualities that historically have been Germany’s secret to success.
And there is more reality. Germany’s central attacking players Kai Havertz and Thomas Müller combined a single shot on target (and even that went wide). Flick had no responses to Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu’s substitutions and change of tactics in the second half; As a result, this is the second consecutive World Cup in which Germany have lost their opening game.
Then there is the harshest reality of all. Next up for Germany is Spain, who beat Costa Rica 7-0. If Germany loses points in Sunday’s game, their fate will no longer be in their hands and they could be eliminated from their second consecutive World Cup appearances in the group stage. As unthinkable as the Oktoberfest with non-alcoholic beer and tofu bratwurst.
The challenge for Flick is to understand what went wrong against Japan. He knew his front line was square pegs in round holes, but he felt—perhaps understandably—that he needed to put his best people out there. The result was a puzzle where not all the pieces fit together.
Havertz as a centre-forward reflects how he plays with his club, Chelsea. Despite being a superior player who suffers more in tight spaces than he should (and Japan have stuffed the penalty area), it looks like Havertz is still learning the position. That’s how he ends up in games where his contribution is almost imperceptible, like this one.
The 33-year-old version of Thomas Muller lined up behind him did little but plug up space – space that his teammate, the young and electric Jamal Musiala, could have used. That’s probably why the young Bayern star explored the right flank and instead stood in the way of Serge Gnabry. With a lot of time and work, you can probably put these front four together in a meaningful way, using the creativity of Ilkay Gündogan and Joshua Kimmich in midfield. Flick doesn’t have that luxury; He has two games left to get it right and qualify for the round of 16.
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Flick probably doesn’t have many other options either, because the plan B from the bank is just so different from his regular players, in addition to the inferior quality (except maybe Jonas Hofmann). Look at the lads he came on as a substitute against Costa Rica: Youssoufa Moukoko, who turned 18 on the day the tournament started, Mario Götze, whose career has stalled since the goal that gave Germany the 2014 World Cup , and Niclas Fullkrug, 29, who won only his second international match. That’s a far cry from the days when Germany had proven center forwards like Miroslav Klose or Mario Gomez.
The challenge is how to weather the inevitable media storm that comes with losing three of your last four World Cup games and how to stop this Spanish juggernaut.
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If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Spain won’t look anything like Japan. Their possession game lends itself to countering with pressing and switching – German bread and butter that they couldn’t use against Moriyasu’s low block. If there is a defensive battle in midfield, Gündogan and Kimmich can definitely keep up with the Spanish midfielders. And when it comes to physicality and standard situations, then Germany is ahead of the game there too.
So Flick can rest easy knowing that Germany’s World Cup hopes haven’t suffered any permanent damage, just a few badly battered egos. At least until Sunday when they face Spain. Then we will find out how much reality bites.