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?

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words James Eastham

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.

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