How Pogba finally became a man at World Cup following Manchester United struggles

Alexander Hassenstein
France's run to Sunday's final has been notable for how Paul Pogba has progressed after a difficult first couple of seasons at Old Trafford

Paul Pogba has had one of the most rollercoaster seasons imaginable for an established, top-class superstar.

A fast start to the campaign with Manchester United, which led to him donning the captain’s armband for the first time, was followed by a lingering hamstring injury that kept him out for two months.

On his return, he was again dominant but, within a month, his form dropped away and, by February, he was being regularly overlooked for young Scott McTominay.

While he regained some of his edge towards the end of the season, and turned in a starring second-half performance in the Manchester derby win against neighbours City, it was Pogba’s miss from close range that denied United an equaliser in the FA Cup final loss to Chelsea.

It was against this difficult backdrop that he joined up with Didier Deschamps’ France squad for the World Cup with criticism ringing in his ears. More was expected of an £89.5 million midfielder with the off-field personality to match his transfer fee.

Where was his pre-2016 Juventus form? Why could he not express himself for United as he does when dabbing and dancing on Instagram?

As he prepares to step onto the greatest stage of all on Sunday against Croatia, he does so having turned in a number of key performances on Les Bleus’ way through to the World Cup final.

His ability to spot a killer pass to open up the play has been one of the major elements in Deschamps’ side overcoming difficult hurdles on the path to Moscow.

His wonderful assist for the penalty and deflected shot for the winner against Australia started France’s tournament off on the front foot, then he made the key interception in the build-up to Kylian Mbappe’s only goal against Peru.

A delicious ball to Lucas Hernandez helped to open up Argentina as Mbappe scored the vital third in their 4-3 win against Argentina, and in the semi-final victory over Belgium Pogba was the man providing key cover in midfield to nullify the threat of his United team-mate Marouane Fellaini.

Paul Pogba France Marouane Fellaini Belgium

“It’s true that Pogba was almost everywhere, not only in attack but he was also efficient in defence,” Deschamps told reporters after the Belgium win. “I think Roberto Martinez had decided to put Fellaini on him, so Fellaini was only worried about Pogba, so of course he had less freedom on the ball.

“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, he is a very expressive player. He knows what he has to do and what he does on the pitch can only increase his legitimacy in the group.”

For much of his time at Old Trafford over the last couple of years, Jose Mourinho has played with a 4-2-3-1 in which Pogba has effectively had his attacking play nullified. The need for him to pull his weight in a two-man defensive midfield line has stunted his freedom of expression for long spells. And when Mourinho switched to a 4-3-3 towards the end of the Premier League campaign, Pogba’s performances generally improved.

But the secret to Pogba’s form at the World Cup cannot be all about formation changes as the 25-year-old has been used in both a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 during this tournament so far.

Such are the range of attacking weapons in this France side, Pogba has still been able to influence moves from a slightly deeper position than usual, with the pace of the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann allowing for more effective moves from range than is generally the case for United.

Too often when playing slightly deeper in a red shirt there has been a higher attacking line, particularly in the first year with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as their No.9, meaning defences were dropped back and passing lanes closed.

Didier Deschamps Paul Pogba France

Paul Pogba Jose Mourinho Manchester United

Pogba himself told reporters this week that the different setup with the national side has brought different results but refused to be drawn into choosing one boss over the other.

“This is not the same team. This is the French team, the other is Manchester,” he explained. “It’s not the same system, I’m not doing the same thing. Of course the relationship with Mourinho and Deschamps is not the same; they are two different people.

“I always listen to what they say to me, whether it’s Mourinho or Deschamps. Both help me improve, I’m learning from both coaches.”

Deschamps, schooled as a player under Marcello Lippi at Juventus, has come in for some criticism for the way he has made France durable but dull. Yet they have been able to step up their game when required in this tournament so far, and Pogba has played a key role in that.

Just as he was able to deal with clear instructions but also allowed an element of freedom to express himself with Antonio Conte’s Juve from 2012 to 2016, the midfielder has revelled in the more rounded role he has been given by Deschamps over the last month.

Paul Pogba Mourinho Deschamps PS

It is all a far cry from Euro 2016, when it was considered that Deschamps’ restrictive game plan had taken something away from Pogba’s natural game.

But it has been a more mature Paul Pogba who has been on display at the World Cup, and if by Sunday night France are world champions for the second time few will have deserved the gold medal more than the United star.

During his struggles at Old Trafford there has been a lot of talk about his price tag and very little regarding his age.

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But now 25 and with the experience of an exceptional World Cup campaign behind him, there seems to be a more rounded persona about Pogba whether in his performances or in the way he speaks about younger team-mates such as Mbappe. He is beginning to look like the leader. He is truly becoming the midfield force.

The next step will be in transferring this form with France to club level and being just such a totem figure for United as he has developed into with his country. If Mourinho can harness him the same way Deschamps has over the course of this summer, then the Red Devils can’t go too far wrong.

But first there is the small matter of winning the World Cup. And in a team full of potential match-winners, Pogba stands above them all as a key man in France’s hope of getting the job done.