“All players need to be mentioned but it’s true that [Paul] Pogba was almost everywhere.” Didier Deschamps waxed eloquent about his midfielder as France became the first team in the last two decades to enter the World Cup final for the third time.
The Manchester United midfielder was only five when Deschamps lifted Les Blues’ first World Cup trophy in 1998. In St Petersburg on Tuesday, Pogba reserved one of his most important performances for France, bulldozing his way past a slew of red shirts and being the fulcrum of his side, who continued from where they left against Uruguay.
Deschamps’s side was effective, compact and impregnable for much of the contest. “Anti-football”, cried Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The organisation skills of the French machinery once again came to the fore, shutting down the top-scorers in the competition.
“Not only in attack but efficient in defence,” Deschamps said of his midfield general.
Pogba’s praise was hard-earned. The unforgiving French media, at the start of the tournament, wondered if the 25-year-old even warranted a place in the midfield three.
And Pogba wasn’t helping his cause, either. He scored the winner in his side’s opener against Australia – an unconvincing 2-1 win with Les Bleus nowhere close to being champions-elect.
After sealing a place in the knockout stages with yet another scrappy win – a 1-0 victory over unlucky Peru – Deschamps rested Pogba for the final group game against Denmark. One can only speculate if the coach was saving one of his main men for the latter stages or giving him more time to get back in to the groove that saw him become English Premier League’s most expensive transfer two years ago.
Attack vs Defence
Pogba’s hefty price tag and reputation of being peerless in his position meant that there was no shortage of criticism, more so about dropping a little too deep in midfield sometimes. Against a rampant Belgium side, Pogba was snapping into tackles, and finding his deadly forward line with precise through balls.
In the 12th minute of the game, Mbappe used his express pace to almost run clear of the Belgian defence after Pogba had played a gorgeous ball along the ground. He barely had any breathing space either. Roberto Martinez had overloaded his midfield in a 3-5-2 formation perhaps keeping in mind the armoury that the French midfield possess.
Maraoune Fellaini, who so diligently stuck to his task against Brazil came out second best during his duel with his club-mate. “I think [Belgium coach Roberto] Martinez had decided to put [Marouane] Fellaini on him so Fellaini was only worried about Pogba, so of course he had less freedom on the ball,” Deschamps noted after the game.
Man-marking, though, hardly diminished Pogba’s spirits. He is no stranger to opposition managers trying to stifle him. Overcoming that minor hurdle, Deschamps observed, was down to his player’s experience. “He knew what to do, he left very little waste. He was more creative in terms of recovery of the ball, one-on-ones.”
Belgium’s tactics played into France’s hand once they took the lead six minutes into the second half. From thereon, Pogba looked far more comfortable shielding his defence, who were once again clinical on the night.
Two years ago, the former Juventus player delivered a similar sucker-punch against Germany in the semi-finals of the European Championships. What followed was an indifferent display from Pogba in the summit clash against Portugal, a game France were expected to win on home soil but somehow lost in extra-time.
Whether we will see the repeat of something similar will be known only on Sunday.
But the Manchester United midfielder and even France have hit a different gear in the knockout stages of the World Cup. Against Argentina, Pogba was instrumental in threading balls behind the dithering opposition defence to pick out Mbappe. It was Pogba’s awareness and tactical discipline that helped him boss the games against Uruguay and Belgium.
There will be no better antidote than going back to Old Trafford as a World Cup winner. He has, after all, endured a difficult period sealing the lips of his detractors. Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, earlier in the year, claimed that Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola had tried selling him to the Sky Blues. There were murmurs of a rift with United coach Jose Mourinho after being dropped to the bench.
Away from all this, Pogba has added a much-needed personality to the French midfield, something the Les Bleus were crying out for since Zinedine Zidane’s retirement. Now, he stands on the verge of entering footballing folklore and one can be sure that he might not be thinking about dabs or haircuts alone.
Next stop for Pogba: exorcising the ghosts of the horror loss at Stade de France two years ago.