Two buzzwords seemed to be doing the rounds more than any other during the build-up to Germany vs. Japan: organisation and intensity. This was poised to be an intriguing display of pressing, which one expected “the Germans” (Ally McCoist, 2022) to win reasonably comfortably. In reality, it couldn’t have been much more painful for the four-time world champions.
As it happened, all there was to split the teams at half-time was a moment of lax disorganisation: Japanese goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda was left horribly isolated by a German overload, before clumsily bringing down David Raum for the sixth penalty in the first 10 games of this World Cup. İlkay Gündoğan converted, leaving Robert Lewandowski as the only player to miss from the spot at Qatar 2022 – and ensuring Germany extended their record run of World Cup matches without a 0-0 to 51 (stretching back to the 1986 quarter-final against Mexico – which they won on penalties, because of course).
The first half at the Khalifa International Stadium saw the second-biggest expected goals disparity of the tournament so far (Germany 1.68-0.11 Japan) after France vs. Australia (2.16-0.52), but Germany did have 14 shots (including, of course, the 0.79 xG penalty). Japan only had 19% possession in the opening 45 minutes – second lowest at the 2022 World Cup ahead of only Iran vs. England (18%) – but restricted Germany to one big chance aside from the penalty.
With Germany dominating the ball to such an overwhelming extent (they had 76% possession overall), it was no great surprise to see ultimate sweeper-keeper and skipper Manuel Neuer enjoy so much of it. The 36-year-old – playing at his fourth, and quite possibly final, World Cup – completed 51 passes, a new record by a goalkeeper in a single game at the tournament since 1966. No other ‘keeper at this World Cup has completed more than 29 (Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa against Poland).
Down the other end of the pitch, Gonda remained the far busier of the two ‘keepers, producing some sharp reflex stops (and eight overall) to give Japan just a sniff of getting back into it. But his opposite number was forced into the save of the match (and maybe the save of the tournament), superbly clawing away Junya Ito’s deflected effort from 10 yards. That was to be about as good as it got for Neuer, though, as Ritsu Doan – one of eight German-based players in the Japanese squad – tapped in the easiest of equalisers after Takumi Minamino’s initial attempt was parried.
Could Neuer have done more for Japan’s winner? You’d have to say so – but let’s take nothing away from Takuma Asano’s exceptional near-post finish to put his country on course for just their second World Cup win in nine (after a 2-1 victory over Colombia in their 2018 opener) – and undoubtedly their most famous. The goal carried a certain undertone of revenge, too: Asano was in the Freiburg team which lost 7-0 to Neuer’s Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga three months ago.
Japan also recorded this famous triumph with just 26.1% possession (barely 24 hours after Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina by the same scoreline from a goal behind with 31%). Only once since 1966 had a World Cup game with a lower percentage: South Korea with 26.1% when they beat… Germany 2-0 four years ago, knocking the then holders out in the group stage.
In the end, what we have here is the first World Cup match dating to 1966 in which a team surpassed three expected goals and lost:
It’s the fourth time a team has managed at least 2.5 xG in a World Cup match and lost, and on three occasions, that team has been Germany.
And with the latest we have the making of a rather interesting Group of Death.