DOHA, Qatar. There is a 1980s film by Richard Pryor called “Toy” in which Jackie Gleason’s character gives a speech to his son about the difference between “truth” and “reality”. Four decades later, German boss Hansi Flick may want to do the same.
The “truth” of their 2-1 loss at the hands of Japan is that they dominated possession (74% vs 26%), scored over 2.4 expected goals (plus a penalty converted), forced Japan to make a couple of great saves . the keeper Shuichi Gondahit the woodwork twice, and if their game had been better, they wouldn’t have made it home until Japan’s rousing comeback in the second half.
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“Reality” is quite different. With 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 had 11 – what adds up to a tasteless expected number of goals? Well, 10 of them were from outside the area, which is pretty sub-optimal. Germany was destroyed by Japanese athleticism, stamina, strength, and self-confidence—precisely the qualities that have historically been the secret to Germany’s success.
And more reality. Central offensive players of Germany, Kai Havertz as well as Thomas Muller, made one shot on goal for two (and he missed the target). Flick had no responses to Japanese boss Hajime Moriyasu’s substitutions in the second half and change of tactics; as a result, this is the second consecutive World Cup in which Germany lost the first game.
Then there is the harshest reality of all. Following Germany is Spain, who defeated Costa Rica 7-0. If Germany loses points in Sunday’s game, they will no longer be in control of their destiny and could be eliminated from their second consecutive World Cup in the group stage. It’s as unimaginable a prospect as Oktoberfest with non-alcoholic beer and tofu sausage.
Flick’s task is to figure out what went wrong against Japan. He knew that his front line was square pegs in round holes, but he felt – perhaps understandably – that he should put his best guys in there. The result was a puzzle in which all the pieces did not fit together.
Havertz as a centre-forward reflects the way he plays for his club Chelsea. Despite being a supremely skilled player who suffers more than he should in tight spaces (and Japan did score in the penalty area), Havertz still appears to be learning the position. That’s how he ends games where his contribution is almost intangible, like this one.
The 33-year-old version of Thomas Müller, lined up behind him, did little more than fill space – his teammate, young and energetic. Jamal Musiala, could use. This is probably why the young Bayern star ended up exploring the right flank and penetrating into Serge Gnabryinstead of this. With a lot of time and effort, you can probably fit these front four in a way that makes sense, capitalizing on the wealth of creativity provided Ilkay Gundogan as well as Joshua Kimmich in midfield. Flick doesn’t have that luxury; he has two more games to fix everything and reach the 1/8 finals.
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However, Flick probably doesn’t have many other options either, because Plan B is off the bench, besides being inferior in quality (except maybe Jonas Hofmann) is just so different from its beginning. Look at the guys he brought in against Costa Rica: Yussouf Mukokowho turned 18 years old on the day the tournament began, Mario Gotzewhose career came to a halt after he scored Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning goal, and Nicholas Fullkrug, 29, who won only his second cap. It’s a far cry from the days when Germany had proven centre-forwards like Miroslav Klose or Mario Gomez.
The challenge is how to weather the inevitable media storm that comes after losing three of the last four World Cup games and how to stop this Spanish juggernaut.
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If there’s a plus, it’s that Spain won’t be like Japan. Their possession game allows them to counter pressure and transition – the German bread and butter they weren’t able to use against Moriyasu’s low block. If this really turns into a midfield battle, Gundogan and Kimmich can certainly hold their own against Spain’s midfielders. And when it comes to fitness and set pieces, Germany also has an advantage here.
So Flick can take solace in the fact that Germany’s World Cup hopes are not irreversibly damaged, but only vanity is hurt. At least until Sunday when they take on Spain. Then we’ll know how much reality bites.