A disastrous 2-1 defeat to Japan in the opening game of the World Cup Finals has served as an alarming wake up call for Germany.
Arriving in Qatar as favourites to progress deep into the tournament, Hansi Flick’s unique setup was too lacklustre to steer away from Japan’s relentless tenacity and aggression.
Although Germany were undoubtedly the dominant side in the first half, Japan became encouraged in the second half, pushing higher up, winning the ball in midfield, and exposing Germany’s unfamiliar positioning on the flanks.
Similar to Erik ten Hag, Hansi Flick made his name as a coach for Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich. He became coach of the national team having notched a win-rate of over 80% with Bayern. Leading his country into his first major international tournament at the helm, Flick’s start (or “wake-up call”, as Ralph Honigstein put it) and tactical setup are similar to that of Erik ten Hag’s at Manchester United.
In his first competitive match in charge of United, Ten Hag’s team lost 2-1 to Brighton & Hove Albon. Conceding two goals before half-time, United were dumbfounded by Brighton’s high-energy approach and direct and accurate build-up play, similar to Germany’s reaction to Japan’s change of strategy in the second half.
At the end of the two fixtures in question, the experienced players judged their 2-1 opening game defeats with gothic indictments: “a nightmare start” according to Harry Maguire, “a horror scenario” according to Thomas Müller.
Honigstein stated in The Athletic that the result was “unnecessary, avoidable and entirely self-inflicted […] the worst kind of loss for any team, due to its corrosive effect on morale.”
Indeed, this corrosive effect proved damning for Ten Hag who watched his side concede four goals to Brentford in the second match of the Premier League season. The Dutchman adjusted and gained stability following this embarrassment. Flick does not have this luxury in terms of losing another Group Stage game.
Under Joachim Löw’s management in 2018, Germany lost their opening fixture in Russia to Mexico and were consequently knocked out by South Korea ten days later.
Flick has demanded that this comparison does not resonate with his setup. But with a crucial fixture against the high-flying, top-quality Spain on Sunday, Germany’s World Cup writing may already be on the wall.
Flick’s in-game decisions echoed Ten Hag’s too. Having opted to deploy Christian Eriksen as part of the front three, Ten Hag subsituted the auxiliary No. 9 Cristiano Ronaldo on at the beginning of the second half, even though he made it clear in the summer that the Portuguese’s profile does not align with his managerial ideals.
Similarly, Flick resorted to bringing on target man Niclas Füllkrug, who had yet to make a competitive appearance for Germany.
Although unsuccessful, Flick’s tactical approaches brought airs of similarity to Ten Hag’s.
With “left-back” David Raum pinned up to the left-wing, “right-back” Nicolas Süle pushed inside to his familiar centre-back position when Germany held possession. Diogo Dalot has excelled in this multi-functional right-back role for Ten Hag this season with the Dutchman being an avid fan of inverted full-backs to supplement the midfield. Süle was ultimately responsible for playing Takuma Asano onside in the buildup to the decisive goal, with Nicolas Schlotterbeck realising his teammates mistake too late.
İlkay Gündoğan was positioned in the role which Christian Eriksen occupies for United, i.e., the ‘quarterback’. Picking up the ball from the centre-backs in the central area of the pitch, the Manchester City midfielder was comfortably Germany’s best player whilst Joshua Kimmich played in a more box-to-box position.
Serge Gnabry, who was briefly linked with United last summer, was pushed out wide right, almost touching the sideline due to Süle sitting back. Ten Hag’s marquee signing, €100 million Brazilian winger Antony, fulfils this duty for United. The ex-Ajax star is a traditional winger in the sense that he parades parrallel and tight to the sideline, which Gnabry did for Germany.
With Jamal Musiala, Kai Havertz, and Thomas Müller, Flick clearly wants a fluid forward line. The trio noticeable did not take many touches around the opposition’s box, preferring to combine sharply and quickly. Although this interplay ultimately did not pay dividends for Germany and Flick, there was a clear similarity to how Ten Hag likes United’s front three to play.
Whether Flick can emulate Ten Hag’s quick-turnaround and guide Germany to the next stage of the World Cup is difficult to judge. Spain have an incredibly talented squad, but so do Germany. Tournament football is always immensly difficult to predict, and with one game to change the course, Flick will feel immense pressure.
Germany face Spain at 20:00 CET this Sunday.