Yet the position, the quality, the attitude, and even the place in the starting lineup of France’s poster boy have been on the agenda. The front page of L’Équipe on the eve of their second group game against Albania depicted Didier Deschamps throwing a glance at Pogba with the accompanying headline “Le Casse-Tête De Deschamps”. It more or less translates as “Deschamps’s Headache”.
Pogba’s status going in to this tournament was clearly that of a major talent, so coveted by the game’s elite clubs a price tag in excess of €100m bats few eyelids. His skill set is fabulously wide-ranging. He is an athlete with powerful physical presence, great balance, a boyhood love of dribbling, a hunch for audacious passing with an eye-catching shot. A serial champion with Juventus in Italy, desired by Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, of course Pogba would be central to France’s plan. Wouldn’t he?
That there is a question mark is intriguing. On the one hand is the notion that France are still waiting for Pogba to flex world-class talent in the shirt of Les Bleus. Two years ago in Brazil, aged just 21, he was billed as one of the starlets to watch at the World Cup yet after an underwhelming opening game when he was hooked after 57 minutes he was dropped from the starting lineup for the second match. He returned to the team, and made an impact with a match-winning header to see off Nigeria in the round of 16. Overall Pogba did show flashes of promise, but it was not quite the expression of dominating ability many had hoped for. Two years down the line, France are not too much further on in terms of the wait for Pogba to truly blaze in blue.
But hang on. Let’s remember he is only 23, and under considerable mental pressure to be an icon for a team touted as one of the favourites at a home tournament. Zidane at the same age still played for Bordeaux and was trying to establish himself in the national team. Michel Platini at the same age played for Nancy and did not have an outstanding first international showpiece at the 1978 World Cup.
On the other hand of the Pogba polemics is a school of thought that it is part of a grand design from Deschamps, an attempt to provoke the player somehow. Pogba is a laid-back character around the camp. He has been known to come a little late to mealtimes and wear his flip-flops, even though the rules demand punctuality and proper shoes. The manager feels he needs pushing. A few well thought out words mentioned to the media by those close to Deschamps might just be another tactic to coax a reaction.
Deschamps reacted drily when he was asked how France might produce the same Paul Pogba as the Juventus version. “I don’t know if that’s possible,” he replied. “He doesn’t have the same shirt, he doesn’t play in the same formation – Juventus play with three centre-backs – and it hasn’t prevented him from playing well with us.” It might be reading too much into things but the tone of Deschamps’ answer suggested that the question had actually struck a chord.
Thoughtful management of Pogba has to be worth trying as the prize is big. He can be a game changer. Deschamps spoke of wanting to give him “an offensive impulse” for the national team. “Paul can do better,” Deschamps noted, “but I don’t want to be too hard on him.” If he is strict with him it is only because he wants him to be crucial, to demonstrate the best he can be.
Hugo Lloris, France’s captain, also had similar words that stem from the desire to be simultaneously encouraging and demanding of Pogba to inspire more than he did against Romania. “Clearly we can expect a bit more from him,” Lloris said. “It was our first match. Everyone was finding their feet. What was important was we won the match as a group. I don’t have any doubts that in key moments he will really come to the fore for the team.”
At training during the week Deschamps has continued to practise with the 4-3-3 used against Romania, with Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi in midfield behind the attacking trio of Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann. But what really got tongues wagging was when Deschamps tried an entirely new system with Pogba and Griezmann, two of the main men, taken out. Experiments with a 4-2-3-1, with the two young whizzes Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman either side of Payet in the No10 role, hinted at something very different.
The temptation to try some fresh faces, and indeed give a breather to those carrying a lot of responsibility, is understandable. Griezmann played 62 matches this season before this tournament. But Deschamps refuted suggestions of looking beyond Albania with this selection. “I am not going to play a match looking a permutations, I am not going to play the second game looking at what might be further on,” he said. “We want to win, and go on to win the group.”
Deschamps hopes France will find another gear after Payet’s magic wand produced three points against Romania. “We are a bit calmer, we have more confidence,” he said. “The context of the opening game did weigh on players minds and in their legs. We didn’t have the energy levels to produce the game we wanted, even if we scrapped to get the win eventually.
“We want to be a bit more neat and tidy, get forward a bit quicker from one phase to another,” he said. “We saw from Romania there was a lot of pressing and we struggled to find the gaps, so the more fluid you are, the quicker you can move the ball, helps you to find gaps.”
France have not fared brilliantly in friendlies against Albania in the past couple of years, drawing at home and losing away, so the search for improvement is outlined with due respect. “They are a very organised side, they have an Italian coach who has done a great job,” he points out. “They defend very well but don’t just settle for defending.”
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