Can Pogba rock it in Russia?
Can French football’s King of Bling revive his career and sparkle this summer, or will Les Bleus’ new generation of wonderkids cast the former golden boy into the shadows?
It seems remarkable to think that in the run-up to Euro 2016, Paul Pogba was regarded as the most likely match-winner for the host nation. Two years on, the Frenchman’s star has fallen to such a degree in his homeland that there are even doubts about whether he will be an automatic inclusion in Les Bleus’ best starting XI, as they look to win the World Cup for only the second time in their history. Pogba’s predominantly humdrum displays for Manchester United and supposedly prickly relationship with his manager, Jose Mourinho, haven’t gone unnoticed in a country that laps up anything and everything on the Premier League. His underwhelming output for United in recent months means that serious questions are being asked in France about the size and nature of the role he’ll actually play in Russia.
Pogba was supposed to carry the team at Euro 2016, but it was close friend Antoine Griezmann who emerged as the hosts’ inspiration and the tournament’s leading player. If Griezmann was the first person to nudge Pogba down the pecking order, the emergence of 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe at Monaco and Paris Saint-germain over the past 18 months has left Pogba looking like yesterday’s man.
Even Pogba’s most ardent admirers have to admit that Griezmann and Mbappe have outperformed the 25-year-old midfielder over the last two years. While the former scored twice as Atletico Madrid won the Europa League and the latter snaffled successive Ligue 1 crowns, Pogba ranked among the also-rans in almost every competition he has taken part in and missed a sitter in the FA Cup final.
It’s not just about Griezmann or Mbappe, either: most France fans are more excited about watching Barcelona starlet Ousmane Dembele and Monaco’s schemer Thomas Lemar than they are the Manchester United man of many hairstyles.
It would be wrong to say the French have turned their backs entirely on Pogba, but as the squad flew off to Russia, national team followers were simply not pinning their hopes on him in the way they had in the past. For many people, the player has plenty to do to justify his place in the side: in an online France Football magazine poll last September asking ‘Should Pogba be an automatic starter for France?’, 70 per cent of the 6,971 respondents said ‘Non’.
As much as FFT is loath to put too much stock in online surveys, that majority verdict appears to roughly tally with public opinion of Pogba as Les Bleus prepare for group games against Denmark, Australia and Peru. Yet he is still able to count on the support of the one person who really matters – France coach Didier Deschamps (below).
When Mourinho dropped Pogba in February, Deschamps offered his full backing. “From time to time Paul may go through a period where things are more difficult, but that doesn’t change what I think of him. I don’t know the whys and wherefores of his problems at United, but this isn’t a problem that’s specific to him.”
Many would argue that this is a uniquely Pogba-shaped pickle. His mediocre performances mean he’s causing headaches and dilemmas in a way no other experienced member of the squad is. As one of only five players with more than 50 caps – Hugo Lloris, Olivier Giroud, Blaise Matuidi and Griezmann are the others – it’s perfectly reasonable that fans expect him to step up more than he has.
Pogba’s supporters would argue that the issue is largely tactical. The player is happiest operating in a three-man midfield, as he confirmed when he spoke to Canal Plus television back in April. “My ideal scenario would be to play as one of two No.8s with a No.6 behind us,” he said. “I’m more of a box-to-box player that looks to get forward, rather than a midfielder working back. I’d be happy playing on the left or the right. I like to move around.”
The problem is that Deschamps generally favours a 4-4-2 formation, allowing Griezmann and Giroud to play as a pair upfront in a system that suits them both. Griezmann can also operate out wide in a 4-3-3, though he’s more consistently effective in a central role. Pogba would benefit from a 4-3-3, but Deschamps is understandably reluctant to do anything that might compromise Griezmann’s chances of exerting the sort of influence he had at Euro 2016.
As a consequence, Pogba is facing the prospect of having to squeeze himself into a setup he’s never looked entirely comfortable in, or being left out of the team altogether because of stiff competition.
N’golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, Corentin Tolisso and Steven Nzonzi are the squad’s other midfielders, and the first three of those have strong claims for a starting berth.
“For me, he’s lost his place in a 4-4-2 for France,” said former France striker Christophe Dugarry, now a pundit, earlier this year. “I have no problem with him being in the squad, but he has produced too many average performances to be an automatic starter.
“In a 4-4-2 Kante’s indispensable, and you would pick either Matuidi or Tolisso to sit alongside him. Pogba has more intrinsic qualities and is an exceptional player, but Tolisso’s better than him right now.
“If you play three in midfield, there’s a question to be asked about whether Pogba starts. He’s very talented, but he’s stagnated too much in recent months.”
Dugarry’s view is an increasingly common one. However, it would be wrong to conclude that Pogba’s France career has been a disaster – at the 2014 World Cup he won the award for Best Young Player.
He was far more decisive at Euro 2016 than many people recall: he scored a thumping header in France’s 5-2 quarter-final demolition of Iceland, before producing some impish footwork to set up Griezmann’s second goal in their 2-0 semi-final victory over Germany.
More recently, Pogba has offered deliciously exciting glimpses of the player he could be: in a 4-3-3 he was outstanding during France’s 3-1 friendly win against Russia in March (left). In front of 68,000 people at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, he scored and supplied an assist in the same international match for the first time.
None of this masks the fact that his form in qualifying was erratic. Only four men (Lloris, Laurent Koscielny, Djibril Sidibe and Griezmann) played more minutes than Pogba, yet he was inconsistent in virtually all of France’s matches.
France Football neatly summarised his questionable contributions once the qualifying phase was over. “The super-talented Manchester United player will have to show a lot more application and consistency to retain his status as an automatic starter in a very rich midfield. He has not been as decisive as Deschamps was hoping.”
And so the one-time world’s most expensive player finds himself in the unexpected position of having more question marks than answers next to his name. Griezmann and Mbappe are the players everyone wants to watch, and no one is entirely sure what Pogba’s value to the team in Russia will be.
Perhaps the uncertainty is exactly what Pogba needs. He’s had the spotlight trained on him ever since his first transfer to Old Trafford at the age of 16. Behind all of the coiffures, viral video clips and carefully choreographed dance moves is an athlete always treated differently from his team-mates.
On more than one occasion Pogba has suggested that expectations of what he should produce on a pitch are unfairly high. He has a point. Being billed as ‘just another player’ might be the making of him.