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The making of Paul Pogba

International Sports

Paul Pogba and the France WC teamPaul Pogba and the France WC teamThe 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.

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.

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