On the eve of the World Cup, the former Rangers and Liverpool manager Graeme Souness surprisingly called on the French manager Didier Deschamps to drop Paul Pogba.
“There are question marks about France…Didier Deschamps struggles to find a system that gets the best out of Paul Pogba,” he said. “You can’t trust him as a central midfielder and, ultimately, that’s how Deschamps will see it. He could use Pogba as an impact substitute. If you’re chasing the game, he might do something, but [he] still doesn’t understand the midfield role properly.”
Souness has emerged as Pogba’s chief critic, some might even deign to call him a troll – only last season he dismissed Pogba as a “YouTube player.”
But fortunately for France Deschamps wasn’t inclined to listen to Souness’s misguided advice, stuck with him and has been rewarded with a succession of commanding performances from Pogba that have taken his side all the way to the World Cup final against Croatia this Sunday in Moscow.
Pogba makes a curious target for such virulent and undermining criticism. He is still only 25, and has already won four Serie A titles with Juventus, the Europa League with Manchester United, and has now reached the finals of both the European Championships and the World Cup with France. You can understand why Pogba has declared that he is the most criticised player in the world, but in Russia he has managed to successfully silence most of his critics and emerge as one of the main driving forces behind France remaining unbeaten and reaching the final.
Since he moved to Manchester United for a world record fee of £89 million two years ago, the main charge against him is that he has been too extravagant on the ball, attempting impossible passes, holding on to the ball for too long, and going missing in too many games.
There has never been any question about his attacking prowess – witness his late arrival in the penalty area for those two goals against Manchester City in the Premier League last April – but that he lacks the fundamental discipline to be stationed in central midfield where he is expect to defend and track back as well.
But at the World Cup Pogba been a revelation in his defensive duties, helping France keep four clean sheets in the tournament, and only concede from open play in one of their six games, the round of sixteen win over Argentina. Deschamps has called him “very efficient in defence.”
In the semi-final against Belgium, Roberto Martinez tried to nullify Pogba by placing his United team-mate Marouane Fellaini on him, but the plan didn’t work as he helped to shut out the previously rampant Belgians while also getting forward to provide support for the attack.
“He was only worried about Pogba, so Pogba had less freedom on the ball [against Belgium],” Deschamps has said. “But he knew what to do, he left very little waste. He was more creative in terms of recovery of the ball, one-on-ones, he performed very well. Paul has grown in the team.”
On the biggest stage of all, Pogba is playing with intelligence, knowing when to stride forward with the ball, or hit his long passes, and when to sit tight and protect his defenders.
It of course helps that he is playing alongside the supreme talents of N’Golo Kante, but Pogba deserves his share of the praise as well.
Pogba has yet to register a goal, though he played a direct role in France’s winner against, or even an assist, but he has been everywhere for France, making the most key passes of any of his team-mates, and as many successful dribbles than anyone except for Kylian Mbappe.
This is the player Manchester United hoped they were purchasing two years ago, and Jose Mourinho has been closely watching the World Cup and hailed Pogba’s maturity, discipline and control.
Ahead of the World Cup final, Pogba and Kante will have to be at their best to deal with the threat of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in what should prove to be the main battle, but they have already repelled Luis Suarez, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
The acute disappointment of losing at home to Portugal in the final of Euro 2016 has lingered for the last two years with Pogba, and he remains desperate to make up for that on Sunday and add another star above the French Football Federation’s crest on their shirt.
Strolling back in to Old Trafford with a World Cup winners’ medal swinging from his neck would now be the perfect way to finally end the debate about his worth as a player.