France coach Didier Deschamps has been careful with public comments in recent months, so keen is he to continue riding the wave of public euphoria following France’s unlikely 3-0 playoff win over Ukraine last year. That result, which overturned the 0-2 first leg deficit, kick-started a new feel-good factor around the side, and with the coach’s squad carefully tailored to combine the mix of talent and harmony, a repeat of any off-field problems from previous recent tournaments looks unlikely. (An example: Deschamps described his selection of the experienced Mikael Landreau as not necessarily picking the third best goalkeeper, but the best third-choice goalkeeper.)
There was one critical moment last week though, and it came after France’s confidence-boosting 4-0 win over Norway. It was a game in which Mathieu Valbuena, with three assists, starred from the right wing, and Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann gave Deschamps options from the bench. One player was singled out for public admonishment, though. “He’s got to learn to stay calm and control his impulses,” said the coach. “He needs to be more rigorous tactically, for the team and for himself.”
Deschamps was talking about Paul Pogba, the 21-year-old midfielder who has less than 10 appearances for Les Bleus, but is already developing into one of its most important players. Pogba is an all-action player; he popped up in the center forward position to head home France’s opening goal against Norway and followed that up with a ‘Zidane roulette’ in the center circle, a burst through on goal and a shot that went wide.
Deschamps’ critique was gentle, but clear: keep your feet on the ground, and don’t believe the hype.
“Pogba has a combination of the qualities that Patrick Vieira had: game intelligence, strength in the tackle, and at the same time he’s capable of creating goals and scoring them,” Arsene Wenger told BeInSport. “We’re excited to watch him at this World Cup, he can be the French team’s main man for years to come.”
While the France team has experience in the form of Hugo Lloris and Karim Benzema, the reasons for optimism around the team surround the classy players who are coming through. It looks like Deschamps will pick the center back pairing of Mamadou Sakho, 24 and named vice-captain, and Raphael Varane, 21 and one of the best young defenders around. With Pogba ahead of them, and Lucas Digne, 20, pushing Patrice Evra hard for a starting fullback spot, there is a swagger to the nation that will host Euro 2016.
For those who have watched Pogba play a decisive role for Juventus in its record-breaking Serie A success, his speedy rise to prominence in the France team has come as no surprise.
“If Pogba was Italian, he could be the new Del Piero or the new Totti,” said Alessio Tacchinardi, former Juventus midfielder and now a pundit on Sky Sports Italia. “[Juventus coach] Antonio Conte knows he has a Ferrari on his hands. He also knows that at this particular age, Pogba can still get better. Conte is clever, he uses the carrot and the stick to get results. But remember also that Pogba would not be the same player if he was at Milan or Roma, where it’s harder to make sacrifices. At Juventus, winning is the only thing, and there are role models for Pogba to look up to everywhere: Pavel Nedved in the management team, and on the pitch, Buffon, Chiellini and Pirlo.”
The same is true in the France side, and Pogba has made no secret of the fact that his hero is Deschamps, even though he was only 5 years old when the France coach lifted the World Cup in 1998. Pogba captained France Under-20s to World Cup success in 2013 and was named player of the tournament.
“I regularly talk to Didier about Paul,” the coach of that team, Pierre Mankowski, told France Football, “And I can see that he has taken the step up to the senior France team with a truly mind-blowing ease.”
The same magazine recently compared Pogba’s match statistics with the best players in other leagues of a similar age: Toni Kroos, Jack Wilshere, Thiago Alcantara, Marco Verratti and Kevin Strootman. Pogba won the most tackles. He made the most interceptions. He scored the most goals, made the most assists, had the best shooting accuracy and the most touches in the opposition penalty area.
These do not mean everything, but they contextualize just how important he has become to club and country. He is modest in interviews – sample quote: “I’m just Paul, a nobody from Roissy-en-Brie. I’m not a star and don't want to be one. I just want to be the best player I can be” – and popular among his teammates. Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid want to sign him, but it will cost them.
“He is as valuable as a Salvador Dali, worth twice as much as Gareth Bale,” said his agent Mino Raiola. “In today’s market, his price would be €200 million.”
Bluster or not, the world is about to wake up to PogbaMania.