Paul Pogba the leader deserves to dab and dance all he wants
Can Man United allow this version of Pogba, a more consistent dominator, to shine?
Paul Pogba of France celebrates with the World Cup trophy. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
If ever there was a time for Paul Pogba to dab and dance, to snapchat and sing to his heart’s content without giving a soul with any sense the opportunity to even tut, this was it.
With Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium his stage, he dabbed with president Macron. He dabbed with his mother and brothers on the pitch. He dabbed with an iconic 36.8cm piece of sculpted gold that means everything in football. A world champion, a scorer of a goal that felt result-defining in the final, a fulcrum for his team, a massive personality revered back home, the only thing missing was a hairdresser on hand to create a World Cup-shaped cut to mark this most glorious of moments.
With Pogba in his exuberant element – the master of social media filming non-stop in the dressing room, on the bus, encouraging all sorts of celebratory flourishes with his band of World Cup-winning brothers – he felt so central to everything about this French generation. During the course of this tournament his status within the group has changed, and even for his own teammates it was difficult to articulate exactly what it was and how it happened. But everyone could feel it.
“I can tell you that Paul Pogba, I don’t know how and I don’t know from where, has become a leader,” announced Adil Rami. “He proved it to us. He showed it. He’s the one that showed the way. He was the strong man of the France team.”
His evolution during this tournament into a new kind of force for Les Bleus, able to use his power, his presence and his technical skill set with an enhanced sense of responsibility and focus, is symbolic of how this team clicked into serious contenders during their month in Russia.
Pogba being Pogba, when France arrived for this World Cup his role in the team was being debated. Polemics about his more enigmatic characteristics, the search for a way to get him to play his best and how to fit him in the tactical scheme of things, bubbled from the off. The scene was not unfamiliar as Didier Deschamps looked tense to be lobbed questions on the subject before a ball had even been kicked or an anthem sung.
Kazan. France’s opening group game against Australia was not particularly convincing. The team laboured. They lacked creativity and cohesion. Still, Pogba influenced the outcome more than most. A clever through ball opened the game up to produce a penalty for their first goal – an assist of sorts – before he prompted and finished the move for the winner (later given as a own goal). Post-match, the Pogba inquisition started anew, prompting him to defend himself by batting away the negative vibes.
“I am less entitled to make mistakes than others,” he mused. “I went from the biggest transfer in the world to the most criticised player in the world. Criticism is always here. When I was little, with my friends we always used to take the piss out of each other, saying: ‘You were good, you were bad.’ It’s about what happens on the pitch and I treat the criticism like I did when I was playing on the block as a kid. I never listen to it. I’m having fun and that’s the only answer I can give to all those people who criticise me or who think I am this or that.”
Into the knockouts, Pogba became more and more influential. The critics in general grew quieter and quieter. Against Argentina he enjoyed himself as France glided through the creative gears. Against Uruguay he helped his team to control the game and minimise pressure. Against Belgium he was strong and disciplined, supporting the defensive work with a mix of aggression and diligence. Pogba showed many facets to his game, able to do what was needed in different situations.
The connections he was making on the pitch became stronger. His bond with N’Golo Kanté flourished as a central midfield pair (albeit it was less effective in the final when Kanté strained to be his usual self). His instinctive understanding with Kylian Mbappé, as exemplified by that ravishing goal when they combined brilliantly as the teenager bounded on to Pogba’s sumptuous pass to ensure the final is remembered for some dazzling football as well as the strokes of first-half luck, is another major plus France take home from this tournament. As souvenirs go, a goal and an assist from that period of play will rightly be cherished by Pogba.
July 15th. There was Pogba’s face, illuminating one of the uprights of the Arc de Triomphe alongside the face of Zinedine Zidane adorning the other. For Pogba this is a powerful thing, linked to his own memories of the 1998 World Cup winners which is entwined with his love for his late father, Fassou Antoine. “I think about 1998, when I watched a video tape of the World Cup with my father, at home, on repeat,” he says. “We would watch it the entire time. Now I am a world champion. I miss my father, He is watching us. I think he would be very proud. This is for him.”
In the aftermath of it all, Rio Ferdinand, with his Manchester United hat on, was quick to point to the challenge for his club to find a way to allow this version of Pogba, a more consistent dominator, to shine more at Old Trafford. But that’s for another day. For now, Pogba can deservedly express his French happiness any way he likes.