Let’s be brave. For most, it’s a foregone conclusion that Germany and Spain are going to come out of this group. Except neither’s recent World Cup history is all that glossy. Yeah, Germany won the tournament just two editions ago. They were also rightly kicked into the trash in the group stage last time out, and went out in the Round of 16 in the last Euros. Spain has played two knockout games in the last three World Cups, losing both, since winning it in 2010. It felt a little like a revival in Euro 2020(1) when they reached the semis and were a touch unlucky to go out on penalties to Italy. But this is Spain, whose reputation of dry heaving their way out of a tournament early is still much more established in history than being a world power. And Germany could be anything.
So if we want a true upset in the group stage, Japan seems like a pretty enticing bet. There are two faulty favorites above them, and they have a clear plan on how they play that they can always return to that can cause chaos. You may remember it from such episodes as, “Totally mud-stomping the US in September.”
You’re going to hear a lot about the way Japan plays more than the actual players who do it in this tournament. If Red Bull had a national team (might not be too much longer until they do, given the way things are going), it would probably play like Japan. Japan press. And press. And press. They play out of a 4-2-3-1, and the four forward players make things awfully hard on any team trying to play out of the back. Which you can easily see Germany and Spain being insistent on doing.
Japan wants chaos, because there may not be a more direct team in the tournament. As soon as they win the ball they’re breaking up the field. It’s not quite Loyola-Marymount in 1990, but it’s close. Japan play at pace and live for the wider spaces they find when they can turn the ball over up the field. Which they do better than just about anyone in the field, though with the caveat that those numbers were piled up in Asian qualifying, hardly the strongest pool of teams.
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The ones employing this hair-on-fire method might be names fans recognize. Takumi Minamino could rarely get off the bench for Liverpool the past few years and things in France with Monaco haven’t gone much better this season. But he is still a stalwart for the national team and had 10 goals in qualifying. Daichi Kamada has been a terror for Frankfurt in last year’s Europa League triumph and so far this year in both the Champions League and the Bundesliga. Junya Ito might not be as familiar, as he only jumped from Genk in Belgium to Reims in Ligue 1 this year, but has four goals and an assist so far this season. Takefusa Kubo is another option for that attacking three behind a forward, and he gave the US plenty of headaches in that friendly.
That press is buffeted by a pretty steely defensive midfield, with Stuttgart’s Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita, who moved to Sporting Lisbon this season. They are the sharp end of the trap, as they snap into tackles in midfield in the hopes of quickly launching their forwards with passes and turnovers.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some blinking lights on the dash. The defense could be a touch on the old side. Maya Yoshida is 34. Hiroki Sakai at right back is 32. Yuto Nagamoto, who may not be a starter, is 36. The kind of pressing Japan engages in leaves a lot of space behind if pierced, and you don’t generally want older players on the chase.
The big check engine light is of course, who the fuck is gonna score? Japan doesn’t have a “fuck you” scorer, and if they are successful in harassing or harrying Spain and Germany into mistakes, that won’t matter much if you don’t convert. Kamada can go on a binge from midfield. Minamino has an impressive scoring record for his country but his recent form is shaky.
It would appear Celtic’s Daizen Maeda will get the first call for the No. 9 role, even though his Celtic teammate Kyogo Furuhashi has more goals but wasn’t picked at all for Japan’s squad. But hey, anyone can get hot, right? The thinking must be that Japan’s tactics will open up enough chances that any punter can score just enough goals, and Maeda can be that punter. We shall see.
Of course, Germany could have the same problem. It is likely that Kai Havertz will start at the top of their lineup, except he’s the same guy who starts for Chelsea there and all the Chelsea supporters are screaming about how they can never score. Havertz is a true weirdo in that it’s impossible to figure out his position. He’s not really a forward, he’s not really an inverted winger type, no one plays with a #10 if it’s even sure he could do that full-time, and he’s a little lightweight to be a full-time midfielder. And yet he’s so immensely talented that no manager can leave him out.
And Die Mannschaft (they don’t really want to be called that anymore but it’s too fun not to say) are going to need goals, because this defense is iffy. The last time we saw them they were giving up three goals to England, with the Dortmund duo of Niklas Süle and Nico Schlotterbeck as the centerback pairing. And no one ever confused Dortmund with stability in the back. Antoine Rudiger has returned from injury but probably isn’t enough on his own.
It’s good for Germany that the defense is so well supported both behind with keepers Manuel Neuer or Marc-Andre ter Stegen and in front with midfielders Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka. New hot young thing in Munich’s Jamal Musiala is likely to be the third in there, with Ilkay Guduogan a steadying hand off the bench.
But the forward line can go either way. There’s Havertz, and Leroy Sané, who at times feels like he should be one of the most dangerous attackers in the world, and sometimes you can’t find him with Heimdall. Serge Gnabry is solid enough, Thomas Muller looks to have aged out of the starting lineup, and a whole lot of inexperience behind that with Dortmund duo Karim Adyemi and Youssoufa Moukoko. It’s not a surprise that Mario Gotze was able to work a recall into this position given the utter wildcard nature of it. They could go in any direction.
Spain…hey look, another team we’re not quite sure where the goals will come from! Alvaro Morata is here again to confuse and bemuse. Dani Olmo do much for you up top? He’s not playing much for Leipzig at the moment. The other options aren’t going to get the pulse racing, but then again showing up to a major tournament without a recognized and in-form striker is kind of Spain’s thing.
At least they seem to be turning over the rest of the team from the last generation, where Sergio Busquets can look forward to just backing up Rodri, and Barca starlets Gavi and Pedri take up the two No. 8 spots. There are more options, like Carlos Soler or Marco Llorente. This is probably the strength of the team and will cure a lot of ills. Wingers like Ferran Torres or Ansu Fati or Nico Williams or Yeremi Pino can certainly provide fireworks out wide, even if there’s no one in the middle to finish them off. Certainly getting wide and up the field is a good plan against Japan if Spain can bring itself to be way more direct than its history suggests. But then, that was manager Luis Enrique’s thing at Barcelona. Like the other two teams described so far, you can see a young-ish 11 coming together here and going off…or just going home.
They might have to provide a lot of fireworks, because this defense is old and bendy in a lot of spots. Cesar Azpilicueta, Jordi Alba, Aymeric Laporte, and Dani Carvahal are still here. If it’s about turning it over to the next generation, then the likes of Hugo Guillamon, Eric Garcia, and Pau Torres are going to have to do it on this stage for the first time.
Their Euros run was kind of instructive, as they piled up 16.6 xG and scored 13 actual goals, 10 of which came in two games. Anyone who says they have any idea what Spain will do here is lying to you.
Costa Rica was able to save their qualifying campaign last year with four straight wins in the Ocho, including beating Canada and the US at home (though both were basically already qualified) and then topping New Zealand in the playoff. Keylor Navas is still here and ready to steal a point somewhere. Still, Costa Rica’s problem in qualifying was they were depending on a lot of geezers and that’s basically true with this squad, with over half over 30. Their last friendly saw them trot out some fresh blood in Anthony Contreras, Daniel Chacón, and Jewison Bennette. But it’s a bad sign when it’s either the AARP crew or the neophytes. Feels like a learning experience for the latter.
Manager most likely to get red carded
Luis Enrique is the chalk, given what we already know about him. But let’s go with Hansi Flick, as there’s already tension with him and his players given that he walked out on a good number of them at Bayern to take this job and he may just want a quick trigger if things go south.
If it were just about aesthetics, Japan wins this group.
Wednesday, Nov. 23 - Germany v. Japan (8 a.m. EST), Spain vs. Costa Rica (11 a.m. EST)
Sunday, Nov. 27 - Japan v. Costa Rica (5 a.m. EST), Germany v. Spain (2 p.m. EST)
Thursday, Dec. 1 - Japan v. Spain, Germany v. Costa Rica (2 p.m. EST)