When it has come to observing praise of the individual stars of this France World Cup team, Paul Pogba’s name has generally been conspicuous by its absence.
So often the centre of attention (though not always for the right reasons), it has been fascinating to see the Manchester United midfielder take more of a back seat role while the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, N’Golo Kante even the defensive duo of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane, have been generating more headlines.
And yet this stepping back from the limelight, this realisation that not everything has to be about him, seems to have been the making of him in Russia.
In France’s opening match against Australia, Didier Deschamps’ 4-3-3 was designed, to a large degree, to get the best out of Pogba. In the absence of a number ten, the floor was clear for him to venture forward into space and to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Unfortunately for Les Bleus, it didn’t quite pan out that way. Granted, they got their 2-1 win in the end, but Antoine Griezmann looked lost as a lone striker while Pogba didn’t have the desired effect in the centre.
For the next match, and in every major fixture since, Deschamps has switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann in the hole, Olivier Giroud up front and Pogba in a more rigid central role next to N’Golo Kante.
There would have been some trepidation about that, given that Griezmann would have been playing in the space that Pogba likes to drift into, not to mention the all-too-public issues that he had in that type of setup at Man United last season.
Interestingly, the carrot of the World Cup seems to have given Pogba a new sense of perspective – and in that, France seem to have coaxed something out of him that has hitherto seemed impossible at Man United. Having the Duracell Bunny that is Kante next to him helps, of course, but Pogba not only looks at home in a midfield two, he is thriving in it.
This Pogba isn’t the flashy show pony that is just as likely to infuriate as he is to enthral, nor is he the walking haircut that seems to rile the likes of Eamon Dunphy or Graeme Souness to the point of red-faced rage with the very mention of his name.
No, this Pogba is a fully-integrated team player, an on-field leader and a man willing to put personal glory and attention aside to focus on the collective French dream of winning the World Cup. He’s grafting, and in doing so, proving the doubters wrong in a new and interesting way.
His passing and interception rates have improved, he’s still making key passes from the centre and, this is the most important point, he looks tactically disciplined. He’s keeping it simple. Not everything has to go on the highlight reel.
Pogba himself alluded to his newfound maturity when speaking to the media earlier this week ahead of the clash against Croatia on Sunday:
“It is a World Cup and we have to sacrifice. We have to defend. It’s not what I do best but I do it with pleasure. We have the same objective and it is to win. I think I have become more mature and all the other players help me a lot on that.”
The nagging doubt for this weekend, however, is whether or not Pogba can continue to operate in the back-seat role. His deeper position and selflessness have meant that he has had to keep some of his more creative and attacking instincts in check.
He has been fantastic so far in doing that, but with the huge occasion and highly-charged atmosphere of the biggest match of his career, it will be the toughest test of his new attitude, knowing that billions of people are watching and not fighting the urge to make himself the star.
Marcel Desailly, a prominent member of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning squad, said before the tournament that Pogba must accept that he’s not the star of this team. To his enormous credit, he has put his head down and sacrificed the spotlight for the overall good of the bigger picture – and the national team could be about to reap the biggest reward of all in Moscow this Sunday.
Griezmann and Mbappe will almost certainly continue to be the headline-grabbing stars of this team – as long as Pogba is okay with that, he will continue to thrive with Les Bleus.