How Paul Pogba Found His Place and Showed France the Way to World Cup Glory

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 17, 2018

Paul Pogba of France dabs with the world cup trophy, FIFA World Cup during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, 2018 in Moscow, Russia(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

The Paul Pogba who returns to Manchester United for the start of the 2018-19 season will be a different Paul Pogba to the one who left for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

World Cups change players, and World Cup wins even more so. For a player who has won international football's highest team honour, life is never the same again. Whatever else he goes on to achieve in his career, be it short or long, he advances through it serene in the knowledge that he has already scaled the highest peak in the sport. Team-mates, managers, opponents, fans and the media all look at him differently. He has become a World Cup winner. He has become a part of football history.

By winning the World Cup with France and playing such a pivotal role in their success, Pogba has won a new status for himself that he will never have to relinquish. But the most important change that he underwent in Russia may have actually occurred well before France even got to the final.

The most noticeable difference to the Pogba of last season concerned the way he played. Gone were the showy, superfluous touches with the soles of his feet, the blind-alley dribbles, the overambitious long-range shots. In their place was a new, rigorous commitment to the sort of essential but unglamorous tasks—winning the ball, keeping it simple—that Didier Deschamps has always asked him to focus on.

The statistics tell their own story. Pogba had just seven attempts at goal in the six matches he played in Russia—an average of 1.17 per game. In last season's Premier League, he shot at goal on average 2.81 times per game. He embarked on only 10 dribbles in Russia, at a rate of 1.67 per match, compared to an average of 3.74 per match in the Premier League.

Pogba made 13 successful tackles at the World Cup, which were only two fewer than N'Golo Kante, registering an average of 2.17 per match compared to 1.22 per game in the Premier League. His interceptions were up as well, from a rate of 0.78 per game in last season's league campaign to one per match in Russia.

Possession recovered, Pogba did what he does best: driving his team up the pitch with surging runs or, more commonly, quick forward passes. It was his impeccably-weighted through ball that freed Antoine Griezmann to win the penalty that got France's World Cup up and running in their first game against Australia. It was his tackle and pass to Olivier Giroud that unlocked the door in their 1-0 win over Peru. And in the final, the goal that he scored to put France 3-1 up and break Croatia's hearts stemmed from his own exquisite, swerved pass to Kylian Mbappe, a sublime half-volley with the outside of the right foot from midway inside his own half that turned defence into attack in the blink of an eye.

Martin Meissner/Associated Press

In the months leading up to the World Cup, Pogba was accused—not for the first time—of taking his eye off the ball. The timing of the launch of Pogserie, a documentary broadcast on Canal+ detailing Pogba's preparations for the World Cup, attracted particularly strong criticism in France. It came at a time when he had lost his place in the United first team and shortly after he had produced a sub-par showing as a substitute in France's 3-2 home defeat by Colombia.

Christophe Dugarry, a member of France's 1998 World Cup-winning squad, blew his top in an entertainingly impassioned rant on radio station RMC Sport, describing the endeavour as "madness" and accusing Pogba of lacking focus.

Pogba set up a goal for Mbappe and scored with a free-kick in France's next game, a 3-1 friendly win against Russia, but by the time the World Cup warm-up games came around in May, he was once again in the firing line. Corentin Tolisso was talked up as a potential replacement, and when Pogba complained about the criticism that he received in a pre-tournament interview with France Football, there was more rolling of eyes.

"He gave an interview to France Football just before the start of the tournament that was catastrophic," says Guillaume Laine, a journalist from leading French regional newspaper Ouest-France who covered France's World Cup in Russia.

"It was all 'me, me, me.' 'It's not my fault, they're asking me to play in a position and do things I can't do because I'm not the leader of the team.' It was a bad move."

Expectations that Pogba would fall on his face at the World Cup, however, were to prove short-lived. Sporting a more business-like hairstyle than usual, he was a central figure in the win over Australia—playing in Griezmann for France's penalty, forcing Aziz Behich to concede the own goal that gave France victory—and when Deschamps rejigged his formation for the second game against Peru, Pogba impressed again. As he grew in stature on the pitch, so it emerged that he was taking on more responsibility behind the scenes as well.

Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said that Pogba was "older, more mature" and had "found his place in the changing room". For midfield colleague Blaise Matuidi, Pogba had become "a real boss". Adil Rami revealed the former Juventus midfielder had been rallying his team-mates with stirring pre-match team talks. "When he speaks, he finds the right words," the centre-back said.

Rami summed up the sense of surprise caused by Pogba's unexpected emergence as a team statesman in a press conference after the final.

"I can tell you that Paul Pogba—and I don't know how, and I don't know from where—became a leader," he said.

"I think something clicked," says Laine. "I think the penny dropped on a psychological level regarding his role in the group.

"It's a very young France team, and at 25, he's one of the elders. With Lloris, [Raphael] Varane and Matuidi, they spoke amongst themselves and said to each other that it was time they started to lead the group.

"Pogba is really popular in the changing room because of his personality and the way he brings all the different ages in the squad together with his jokes, his pranks and his party spirit. But he added leadership to that. He became a leader of men."

Pogba's metamorphosis into a leader found an echo in the tournament experience of his close friend Griezmann. The Atletico Madrid striker had insisted ahead of the competition that he was "not a leader", but as the World Cup unfolded, he found that he was.

When France were 4-2 up against Argentina in the last 16, Griezmann chastised Lucas Hernandez for flying up the flank from left-back and instructed his Atletico colleague to play more conservatively. Ahead of France's quarter-final against Uruguay, Griezmann spoke in glowing terms of the steeliness and savviness that he had learned from his Uruguayan club-mates—Diego Godin in particularat Atletico. He transmitted those qualities to his France team-mates, and they became increasingly prominent features of the team's play as Deschamps' men ground their way through the knockout phases. Griezmann's nous, defensive work and ability to win free-kicks helped to set the tone and the tempo.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 16:  France Captain Hugo Lloris and Paul Pogba react as he holds the trophy  as French President Emmanuel Macron receives the France football team during a ceremony at the Elysee Palace on July 16, 2018 in Paris, France. France beat C
Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

Pogba, likewise, came to realise that his own attacking instincts would have to be subjugated for the good of the team. "I want to win this World Cup and you have to make sacrifices," he said. "Defending is not my strong point, but I do it with pleasure."

His new leadership role engendered a more open attitude toward the French media. Where previously he had gone out of his way to avoid speaking to the press, now he was stopping in the mixed zone and agreeing to take part in his first France press conference for four years.

For United supporters, one of the most striking aspects of Pogba's World Cup was seeing him excel in a disciplined role on the right of a midfield two after they were told for the best part of two years that his favoured position was in a roving role on the left of a midfield three.

Pogba showed in Russia that if he has a compelling incentive, he will accept a less glamorous role in the team. His ability to recapture his World Cup form could be a defining feature of United's season and may depend on whether manager Jose Mourinho can convince him to make the same sacrifices that he was prepared to make for Deschamps.

"By the end of last season, I think the frustrations [between Pogba and Mourinho] were palpable," says Barney Chilton, editor of United's longest-running fanzine, Red News.

"Can that be repaired? Will Jose's ego tolerate a World Cup star? I don't think he's going to change. Mourinho is Mourinho, for better and worse, and that means no change of system to make it all about Pogba.

"I think the team will be buoyed by [Pogba's achievement]. You can't help but think that having a World Cup winner in the team will mean we'll see a better Pogba and a better United. But I think that depends on the players around him too."

When United take to the field against Leicester City in their opening league game on August 10, it will be the first time the club have featured a new World Cup winner in their ranks since Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton and John Connelly trotted out of the Old Trafford tunnel ahead of a 5-3 win over West Bromwich Albion in August 1966.

United finished that season as league champions, and the following year they lifted the European Cup, with Charlton scoring twice in the final. Pogba is three years younger than Charlton was when he won the World Cup and eight months younger than Zinedine Zidane was when his two headers powered France to glory in 1998.

The World Cup final was the first day of the rest of his career.


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