It started with a header, from Antoine Griezmann, knocked back towards Paul Pogba, the much-maligned and mercurially talented Manchester United midfielder. France were leading 2-1 over Croatia in the World Cup final in the 59th minute, but the Eastern European team had been, if marginally, the superior side thus far in the match, rapidly compressing the space for Pogba, Griezmann, and Kylian Mpabbe to work.
With Pavard running up the field next to him, Pogba could have simply tapped the ball into the forty yards of space between the right-back and the nearest Crotian defender, allowing Les Blues to relive some pressure and spring forward for a possible counterattack.
Anyone but Pogba
If it had been anyone except Pogba, they would have made that simple layoff to Pavard. Instead, Pogba paused and then lashed out a sublime right foot, striking the ball perfectly through the laces and send it screaming, no higher than chest height, diagonally towards the opponents box and found the feet of Mbappe. As the future Golden Boy winner sized up the poor left-back tasked with defending him, Pogba wandered downfield behind the intial break from Griezmann and Giroud, eventually slowing down at the edge of the box.
Mbappe took a few dribbles, faked inside, then scooted outside and tried to drag-back a low cross to the feet of Griezmann. The ball was deflected, forcing the Athletico Madrid man back to gather the ball on the retreat. A touch to control, and Griezmann laid off the ball to Pogba, who struck it first time with his right foot. The shot was blocked awkwardly, rolling back into the path of the French midfielder; reacting quickly, he stepped forward and laced a side-footed laser past Croatia’s goalkeeper Subasic. As Pogba raced away, everyone knew; that goal was the one that sealed France’s 4-2 win over Croatia to win the 2018 World Cup.
A tournament of quiet brilliance
Pogba’s tournament has been one of quiet brilliance, understated defensive performances coupled with a few key, sparkling moments of offensive genius, whether it was a pass to spring Mbappe or Griezmann forward or a powerful dribble to break through opponents lines.
The seven games he played next to N’golo Kante were the best stretch of performances seen from Pogba since he left Juventus for Manchester United, controlled and poised as the link between defense and attack. Now, at the age of 25, a World Cup trophy in hand, and a murky, clouded future at the club level, Pogba has reached a critical point of his career, and this next club season under Jose Mourihno will show whether the center midfielder will eventually become a Ballon D’or winner or settle as a would’ve-could’ve-should’ve player for his generation.
A mix of good and bad at United
Before the tournament (in case you forgot – one month is quite a long time), there was doubt as to whether Pogba should even be included in the Frances starting XI. His transfer back to Manchester United, on the heels of a disappointing Euro Finals loss to Portugal on home soil, has been a mix of good and bad.
In his first season, United were still in rebuilding mode, and surrounded the Frenchmen with the likes of a decrepit Wayne Rooney and a creaky, leaky defense consisting of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Pogba struggled some in adjusting to a new team, with performances versus Liverpool and Watford being particularly awful, but he also lead Manchester United to a Europa League Title and was named the player of the EL season. Heading into a second season, Pogba looked poised to make the leap to superstar.
It never happened. After a strong start, Pogba got injured in a Champions League group stage game versus FC Basel and missed the next three months. A combination of inconsistent form, the rise of Manchester City’s Centurions across a town, and a disappointing loss to Sevilla in the Round of 16 of the CL knockout stages lead to questions about Pogba at Manchester United. Rumors of him being offered to Man City, and clubs like Juventus, PSG, and Real Madrid began to circle.
Pogba, the undroppable
Once the tournament began, however, it became clear that Pogba was one of Deschamps “undroppables”; as the primary link between attack and defense, the midfielder quickly made an impression in the opening two group stage games, setting up all three goals France needed to qualify for the knockout stages.
Combined with the omnipresent N’golo Kante in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, Pogba thrived whether helping cleanup defensively (2.1 tackles per game, 1 interception per game, and 2 clearances per game) or provide offensive sparks (6.1 progressive passes per game and 1 progressive dribble). His performance versus Belgium in the semifinals was mature and excellent; besides providing three key passes, Pogba also marked the ariel threat of Belgium’s Marouane Fellani out of the game.
The best was saved for last; with Kante being uncharacteristically sloppy at center midfield and being taken off for Steven N’zonzi at the 54th minute, Pogba, after a quiet first half, provided defensive solidity before virtually winning the game for France with his spectacular through-ball and subsequent finish. As the clock expired and the referee blew his whistle, Pogba joy and relief could be seen through the TV; his potential, at least somewhat, finally fulfilled.
Keeping it simple
There is no small irony, of course, in how Pogba played this past month. Flashy, flamboyant, powerful would best describe the Frenchman’s game – his driving runs from midfield, the 5-star skills, the confident, bordering on arrogant strut around the pitch; all of it. Off the pitch, he embraces the spotlight, with his dance moves and savvy, suave persona when talking to the press.
On the pitch, Pogba kept it simple, only breaking out that devastating final pass and skill move for when it was needed most. Until the World Cup final, Pogba had no goals or assists, and won plaudits for what most pundits had considered a flaw in his game; his defensive awareness and tactical discipline. By the end of the World Cup, even notorious Pogba critic Roy Keane said “I don’t mind Pogba dancing now…he can do whatever the hell he wants!”
Midfielders like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Miralem Pjanic have a knack for simultaneously disappearing and dominating a match. They operate from inside their own cool bubble of omnipotence, just out of the corner of your eye, until suddenly one pass and the forwards are through on net. Pogba is the antithesis of this type of player, both in play and in nature, and yet thrived in that role for France’s tournament run. While Mpabbe and Griezmann scored the goals and shone the brightest, Pogba toiled behind them, silently, majestically, in control.
A different role in Manchester
At Manchester United, things will be different. For one, Jose Mourihno is not Didier Deschamps, who, even if his football can be pragmatic and boring at times, seems interested connecting with his players and making them happy. Mourihno is a better coach tactically, but his people skills range from “needs some work” to “maybe Trump would be better”.
Additionally, Pogba’s role is different for United; he is pushed further up the pitch, relied upon more to create consistent chances and control the final third than spring rapid counter attacks (though he can still do that). One seven game stretch of dominance isn’t enough. Pogba needs to consistently bring concentration and defensive awareness, not just during big games.
At the same time, would you doubt him? Alexis Sanchez should be completely settled in by the time the season starts, while new signing Fred, playing in a more box-to-box role, will help alleviate the pressure on Pogba to create and Nemanja Matic to defend. That goal versus Crotia could be the springboard from which the Frenchman launches into the next stage of his career, or it could be the peak of what will be seen as equal parts frustrating and fantastic. Which way it goes is up to Paul Pogba.
This article was originally published here at CUGuyBlog.