The memes were already in circulation by half-time of France’s Group F game against Germany, comparing Paul Pogba in a Manchester United jersey very unfavourably to the Pogba who lines up for France.
And it’s true that the World Cup winner looked a player transformed from the one who featured in central midfield for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in the Premier League this season.
But is that really surprising when you look at the way the two teams treat the phenomenally talented playmaker?
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France’s solid shape saw N’Golo Kante playing like N’Golo Kante against Germany, winning virtually everything in the centre of the park and dominating in a manner that Fred or Scott McTominay can only dream of.
With Adrien Rabiot also starting in that central three, keeping things ticking over with the sort of quality on the ball that United don’t possess, Pogba was given license to go and express himself.
And when you give Pogba that freedom, that’s when the magic happens.
Paul Pogba a mis au supplice Toni Kroos
Image credit: Getty Images
The 28-year-old is a confusing footballer to watch at times. Yes he has the positional sense and the defensive ability to play deep, and yes he has that rare talent for progressing the ball through the lines, something that so few midfielders can do to his level.
But just because he can do it, doesn’t mean that’s how you should use him.
"We [France] play in 4-2-3-1, also a diamond,” Pogba explained prior to the game.
I am a little more in the transmission, in the construction. But I have more freedom than in Manchester to enter the box, to make runs forwards.
It’s the same mistake that countless Manchester United managers have made with Pogba: seeing a player with the physical attributes capable of dominating central midfield, and failing to give him the freedom to showcase the magical creative skills that make him such a world-class performer for the national side.
And those sublime skills were on full show for what turned out to be the winning goal against Germany.
France v Germany
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When Pogba picked up the ball out on the right flank with 20 minutes on the clock, it was already obvious that Germany had got themselves into a defensive muddle.
Yet it still required something brilliant to take advantage of that stretched German back-line, and Pogba duly delivered, floating a gem of a pass right out into the space on the far side of the box.
His pass, hit with the outside of his boot, also had a hint of backspin on it, leaving it perfectly placed for the onrushing Lucas Hernandez (who wasn’t even in shot on the television coverage when the pass was played) to fire across goal, forcing Mats Hummels into the mistake that turned the ball into his own net.
At first glance it was a goal caused by a Hummels howler. But a re-watch showed that Pogba’s role was key.
And the France No. 6 almost played a pivotal part in two further goals after the break.
Again it was a wonderful lofted pass that picked out Kylian Mbappe in the box, giving the PSG man the opportunity to twist into space and curl a shot in off the far post, only to see it ruled out for offside.
And Pogba’s silky turn and perfect through-ball later put Mbappe away to square for Karim Benzema, only for the offside flag to deny France a second time.
But the blueprint for how to use Pogba was clear. If you give him a proper platform he will deliver in spades.
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