Wednesday 26 June 2019

Comment: Why fingers may have been pointed in the wrong direction when Paul Pogba was condemned last season

Paul Pogba impressed at the World Cup (Adam Davy/PA)
Paul Pogba impressed at the World Cup (Adam Davy/PA)
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

In the eyes of his outspoken critics, Paul Pogba had become the epitome of everything that is was ugly about the modern game, but he has emerged as the biggest winner from a wondrous month of World Cup football in Russia.

This is the era when footballers have become brands, when their each and every social media message is worth thousands to their sponsors and when a new haircut creates more interest than a winning goal at the World Cup, with Manchester United’s record signing Pogba often hailed as the poster boy for this new breed of commercially driven sportsmen.

Pogba needed to change the tide of negativity that threatened to drown him and freed from the controlling handlers at his club, he has achieved that goal.

At the start of this World Cup, Pogba’s place in the France team was under threat after a pretty woeful season under Jose Mourinho’s watch at United was backed up by jeers from a home French crowd as he laboured through a warm-up match against Italy in Nice.

France coach Didier Deschamps was forced to publicly defend Pogba as calls grew for him to be benched for Les Bleus' World Cup campaign, yet the player who has helped to put himself in the eye of plenty of storms in recent years has finally allowed his football to do his talking for him.

After a fortunate winning goal in an unconvincing France display in their opening World Cup match against Australia lifted the pressure on Pogba to an extent, his change of attitude has arguably been the most notable aspect of his performances at this tournament, with his stunning goal in France's World Cup final win against Croatia on Sunday the defining moment of his career in a summer when he succeeded in shifting opinions in his favour.

During a press conference hosted by France’s semi-final goal-scoring hero Samuel Umtiti last Friday, the Barcelona star suggested Pogba has had seen the light in more ways than one, as he offered this telling tribute to his close friend.

"Paul has always been a leader, but maybe he needed to do more for the team collective and he is doing it now," stated Umtiti.

"It’s on this point that he has really progressed and he has had a very good evolution during this competition."

Umtiti was referring a player who did not fit Pogba’s description just a month ago, with his flaky performances over the last couple of years at United leaving many to conclude he was not worthy of the hype build up around him by his army of PR advisers.

The inimitable Eamon Dunphy summed up Pogba as only he can during an appearance on RTE 2FM’s Game On show when he suggested the United man was "self-indulgent and never going to be a winner" but his tone changed after Pogba’s impressively controlled performances in a team of French winners.

"As someone that has been critical of Pogba, severely so at times, I thought he was very, very disciplined," declared Dunphy, as he summed up his World Cup displays. "There’s a structure there that allows him and encourages him to do what he’s good at and his use of the ball was very, very good. Simple but effective.

"Often you wonder what he’s for but he has focused on what he needed to do and he felt comfortable. You have to credit the team and Deschamps with that."

Mourinho has also been praising Pogba in his role as a TV pundit in Russia and when the celebrity who has so often craved attention met the media ahead of the World Cup final, the ego he has often promoted had been banished to his recently abandoned adolescence. 

"It is a World Cup and we have to sacrifice," declared Pogba last week. "We have to defend. It’s not what I do best but I do it with pleasure. I want to help in any way I can. I think I have become more mature and all the other players help me a lot on that.

"If I get better, it’s thanks to the team and the coach. The second World Cup is different from the first one. You play against teams with experience, against great players and I also cannot play the same way as I play for my club.

"I think the image that people have of me has changed. I think people judge me now on my role as a midfielder and not as a player who can score goals and make assists."

It said much about the new Pogba that his first social media message after the win against Belgium saw him dedicate the victory to the 12 young boys pulled from a cave in Thailand after their 18-day ordeal.

It was a generous gesture that earned Pogba the kind of praise he has not been used to from his social media posts that used to focus on his own extravagant lifestyle and yet a more likable version of the player who became so easy to ridicule has emerged.

Now he has gone from being the most expensive misfit in football to history maker after he became the first Manchester United player to win the World Cup since 1966, with his goal in the final capping a fine tournament from a player who has won over his fiercest critics in the last few weeks.

For a second successive major international tournament after his sterling displays at Euro 2016, Pogba has proved he can be a real force on the world stage if he is used properly by a coach who knows how to get the best out of him.

So if the problems that have undermined Pogba's reputation since his return to United in the summer of 2016 resurface next season, maybe a few fingers need to be pointed at the manager failing to use him correctly rather than a player who has served as Mourinho's fall-guy-in-chief for the last two years.

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