Before the start of what turned out to be the best World Cup many of us have ever seen, Graeme Souness said this:
“He should draw a line under that. You can’t trust him as a central midfielder and, ultimately, that’s how Deschamps will see it. He could use Pogba as an impact substitute.”
Oh how wrong he was! That said, Graeme usually is and never admits it, but in this you sense a horrible agenda on the Scotsman’s part.
He wasn’t alone. There were calls by pundits and ITKs all around for Corentin Tolisso to start ahead of Pogba. Even France’s own fans turned on him. Antoine Griezmann defended the Manchester United player saying:
“The whistles are part of football, you have to stay tough mentally. We’re all playing for the same shirt. He plays his game, you’re used to him scoring. We don’t expect that from him, only that he rotates the ball and plays for the team.”
This statement is very telling considering how France ended up playing. Deschamps put Pogba in a midfield three as Pogba prefers to play. However, he did not give Pogba both N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi as protection. Each man was tasked with stopping opponents, interceptions and ultimately winning the ball. Only when the ball was won was it then Pogba’s job to spray the passes to the front three. In this role Pogba was able to flourish. He was allowed to be physically dominant and creative without the pressure of the assists leaderboard which is far too deceiving an indicator of influence. People expect an £89m player to score 30 goals and have 20 assists. Maybe there’s more to it than that.
In the World Cup final Pogba lead france with the most touches of the ball (55), most passes (35), most possession gained (7), most tackles (4) and most interceptions (2). You would have expected the last three stats to be owned by Kante but whether because of injury or tactical reasons the diminutive Frenchman was hauled off after 57 minutes. Either way, he was having a shocker and Pogba carried the side from then on. He didn’t need Kante to protect him. He did Kante’s job and his own with aplomb.
If the final wasn’t enough, let’s go back to the second round and quarters. Pogba registered 14 duels won, the highest by a Frenchman in a World Cup since Lizarazu in ’98. Against Argentina, Pogba recovered the ball 10 times, twice more than any other French player. Yet again, he did his job and the job you’d normally associate with Kante. This isn’t to diminish Kante’s contribution, only to point out that Pogba was a very capable destroyer in addition to his creative abilities. This is what an £89m player is capable of.
Many brandished him indisciplined, incapable of being the on-field leader that the team really craved, especially as star Antoine Griezmann openly refused the responsibility. Pogba said he wanted it, that this had to be his time. Yet again he was torn apart for it. As usual, many decided to put on their best armchair pundit show but no one listened to what was going on inside the camp. Here is what Adil Rami had to say:
“I can tell you that Paul Pogba, I don’t know how and I don’t know from where, has become a leader,” announced Adil Rami. “He proved it to us. He showed it. He’s the one that showed the way. He was the strong man of the France team.”
Pogba drove this team to victory on and off the pitch. If one paid attention on social media, you’d see the mood was always set by Pogba. The dancing, the jokes, the music. Maintaining high spirits in the camp. A camp that many said was too young, too rebellious, showed more togetherness than past squads.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the French squad is originally of African descent. They didn’t shy away from their roots, in fact they used it to unify the squad and bring the non-Africans aboard and Pogba was the architect of this. If you didn’t smile watching Antoine Griezmann trying to shaku shaku with the African boys then you might just be an angry old man.
You can be mad about Pogba’s hair, about his dancing and about his raw confidence but this is the generation he’s born into. There are countless players like him and the kids love it. We just have to deal with it and respect Pogba for who he is and the wonderful talent he has. Now, the next and more difficult step for him is to replicate this form for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. A difficult task it may be but if you haven’t learned already, don’t bet against Paul Pogba, he usually proves you wrong.