Pogba shows defensive discipline

Paul Pogba has made adjustments for the team's benefit as they aim to bury their Euro 2016 ghosts.
Paul Pogba has made adjustments for the team's benefit as they aim to bury their Euro 2016 ghosts.PHOTO: REUTERS

Criticised in the past, he displays all-round ability in Russia by also shielding the back four

MOSCOW • A towering physique and range of flashy hairstyles mean Paul Pogba rarely goes unnoticed, but he has become emblematic of a French squad willing to sacrifice personal gain for World Cup glory.

Les Bleus go into today's final against Croatia in Moscow aiming to make amends for the bitter disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final on home soil to Portugal.

Just weeks before Manchester United paid a then world-record £89 million (S$161 million) to sign Pogba from Juventus, that final largely passed him by.

The intervening two years have not always been easy either.

Pogba has been criticised in England for failing to dominate big games and was even dropped a number of times last season because his defensive work did not match the standards demanded by Jose Mourinho. However, it is that aspect of Pogba's game that has been so impressive in Russia.

France's defenders and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris have earned deserved praise for four clean sheets in six games in getting to the final, but Pogba has played a big part in protecting the back four alongside N'Golo Kante.

In their 1-0 semi-final win over Belgium, Pogba routinely tracked Marouane Fellaini back into his own box to snuff out his club team-mate's physical threat from crosses.

A CLASS ACT

(Against Belgium), he kept things simple and was impressive. His long balls are also exceptional. Few can do that in the world.

ARSENE WENGER, former Arsenal manager and a pundit in Russia for beIN Sports, on what France midfielder Paul Pogba can achieve if he is on song.

His defensive discipline will be fully tested today by Croatia's midfield creators Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. But Zlatko Dalic's men will also have to be wary of Pogba's more natural strengths.

The 1.91m "Pickaxe" blends power with pace and finesse. He is a goal threat from free kicks and open play, and has a passing range that impresses former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

"Sometimes he can lose himself by doing things that aren't useful," said the Frenchman, who is working as a pundit in Russia for beIN Sports. "(Against Belgium), he kept things simple and was impressive.

"His long balls are also exceptional. Few can do that in the world."

Pogba's extroverted nature has also seen him become a leader for a young team on and off the field. He flew his barber out to Russia from London to give some members of the squad a mid-tournament haircut, while his social media output is filled with pranks being played on team-mates. But the 25-year-old is also a source of advice for younger players such as Kylian Mbappe, 19, and semi-final match-winner Samuel Umtiti, having already experienced huge highs and lows in a short career.

"He's always been a leader. He can talk to players and give advice because people really listen to him," said Umtiti.

At this tournament, he is leading by example by making adjustments for the betterment of the team so that they can avoid another disappointment.

"I know the taste of defeat in a final. It's really not good, very bitter," he said. "We really want to finish well, with a smile."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 15, 2018, with the headline 'Pogba shows defensive discipline'. Print Edition | Subscribe