It was, as Paul Pogba’s international captain Hugo Lloris all too happily put it, “the perfect response.”
After dominating discussion in the buildup to France’s match away to the Netherlands — mostly because a poor performance against Bulgaria had led manager Didier Deschamps to state “he can and must to better” — the Manchester United man then went and dominated this match in Amsterdam.
It was not just about Pogba’s 30th-minute long-range strike that eluded the fingertips of Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and gave the French a 1-0 win. It was about how that goal merely crowned a generally commanding performance, when he regularly eluded Dutch attention to put the ball wherever he wanted.
This was what Deschamps wanted, and the manager referenced his own words afterward, agreeing that Pogba “did a lot better.” It was more than that, though. It was the complete midfield performance many had been waiting for from the 23-year-old, and the consensus around the French camp was that this was by far his best performance in an international jersey. That obviously comes with the caveat that this was just one game against a relatively weak and young Dutch team, but to produce such a display after so much criticism — and in a key match that allows France to fully take command of this qualification group — is still testament to the young player’s resilience.
Lloris praised that character afterward. Although Pogba had been outwardly relaxed amidst all the discussion before the game, the goalkeeper had noted his resolve.
“Yes, but he’s a warrior in his mind,” Lloris said. “That’s the most important thing. Of course, he’s very talented, but in football, talent is not enough. And in his mind, he’s very strong, and very ambitious, so he’s going to improve step by step, and he will arrive at the level that he wants.”
Pogba himself hinted at why he hasn’t yet reached that level when admitting after the game that he had been conscious of all the debate about him.
“It’s true that it’s not always pleasant to hear criticism and bad things about you. But football is like that. I try to stay focused on the field,” he said. “I am a player who tries things, who is trying to create. Maybe I dribble a little too much sometimes, but we grow, we learn.
“The coach gave me instructions. I try to follow them.”
Striking that balance between team discipline and individual expression has been Pogba’s biggest problem so far, at least when he’s not in his favoured position, on the left of a three-man midfield. That alone has been an odd — and slightly concerning — issue for someone who is now the most expensive player ever. It is, after all, simply remarkable that a supposedly all-round midfielder who cost so much can actually only look worth that kind of money when he plays in one highly specific position.
But that was always so obviously the case. Pogba has often looked out of sorts when placed anywhere else, especially in the midfield two that Deschamps put out against the Dutch. He has either tried to be too tactically disciplined that he has been totally underwhelming or he has tried to overcompensate with flashy moves that unbalance the side and leave gaps. The performance against Bulgaria was so disjointed that it led to calls that the formation be changed for Pogba or that he should be dropped.
Instead, Pogba raised his game, and Deschamps changed the way he played. He found the balance and showed he can play in that midfield role. This “was more in line with what he is capable of,” as Deschamps said afterward.
Even if the Dutch also were generally callow, that is not something you can say about Kevin Strootmann. The Roma midfielder has recently been finding his feet again on the recovery from so many injury problems, but he lost almost every battle against Pogba. The United midfielder schooled him in so many faceoffs, easily holding him off with physicality and then embarrassing him with finesse. From there, Pogba played a series of sumptuous balls that set the tempo for this match.
There were three long-range passes throughout the game that were especially luscious, but one stood out above the rest. On 57 minutes, Pogba played a glorious ball over the top to put Kevin Gameiro through one-on-one with Stekelenburg, in a move that was someway reminiscent of Frank De Boer’s pass to Dennis Bergkamp in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal. Gameiro similarly tried to take the ball down on his toe but just couldn’t get it under control, denying Pogba — and the game — a moment that would have been even more pleasing than the winning goal.
It was that good — the perfect showcase of his exceptional passing talent. The key to this game, though, was that it was finally a showcase of Pogba’s talent in a central two. Before the match, one source close to the French camp had argued Pogba had not yet shown his best for his country, but the issue was that there always seemed to be an excuse made for him. First it was his age, then it was his club situation, then it was the transfer price, then it was the position. An argument had been growing outside the camp that there might just be something missing from his game, that he might not be capable of the type of display everyone expected.
Just when he seemed to be running out of excuses, though, Pogba excelled.
It wasn’t all “blah, blah, blah,” as he might have said himself in the summer.
It was a display of substance — and significance. It should not just be a response. It should now be his reference point.