Didier Deschamps has to figure out how to best use Paul Pogba
After France's poor showing against Romania, Didier Deschamps sent his team out against Albania with two major names missing in Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba. France won 2-0 courtesy of late goals from Griezmann off the bench and Les Bleus' Romania hero, Dimitri Payet, but they were poor on the day, putting just two shots on frame and clearly lacking any continuity and creativity. It took only 45 minutes for Deschamps to realize his mistake and recall his star man, but the biggest question still remains for the French manager: how's he going to make his system work with Pogba on the field?
Against Romania, France were flat. They were rescued by Dimitri Payet's wonder-goal, but at times lacked organization, cohesion and ideas. Antoine Griezmann was poor against Romania, often drifting infield to encroach on Dimitri Payet's space, and unable to properly sync with France's new star man. Despite not having his best game either, Pogba himself was one of France's better players on the day. Aside from a few minor miscues and a tendency to over-elaborate on the ball, his range of passing on the day was fantastic, and the 23-year-old was unlucky not to score against Romania.
Talking to the press after the Romania result, Deschamps moved to downplay any criticism of his young star's performance: "Paul, of course, can play better than that. I'm not going to be too hard on him but his potential is such that he can contribute more than he showed tonight." And it's true. Against Romania, Pogba wasn't bad, but he wasn't the world-beater he has the potential to be every time he steps on the pitch.
In an interview with UEFA.com just a few days before the tournament's start, Deschamps talked about his desire for Pogba to keep the game simple: "People expect too much of him because he has above-average technique. He's not there to make the crowd rise every time he touches the ball. I've told him that sometimes he needs to play in a neutral way. He's a midfielder, not a No. 10."
Paul Pogba isn't a No. 10, even though he wears the shirt for Juventus. He's not a No. 6, playing just in front of the back four, happy to clean up play and distribute simply to teammates. If you had to put Pogba in a box, he's probably closest to a No. 8, equally comfortable attacking and defending, operating in both phases of play. The problem is, you can't put Paul Pogba in a box. Paul Pogba is his own box. Paul Pogba is a 6, an 8, a 10, a 9, a 7, an 11-- you get the point here. Paul Pogba can do it all. And to get the best out of him, he needs the freedom to do it all.
Didier Deschamps doesn't want to give him that freedom, and his team has suffered for it.
Against Albania, Deschamps went with Dimitri Payet as his No. 10, opting for a double pivot of Blaise Matuidi and N'Golo Kante to support the West Ham man, with Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman manning the wings. Simply put, it was a complete and utter failure.
Anthony Martial was only allowed to emerge from Elseid Hysaj's pocket after his halftime substitution for Pogba. Kingsley Coman was either too predictable on the ball, or too wasteful with his final pass when his trickery did come off. For long stretches, France's main gameplan seemed to be to launch long balls at Olivier Giroud's head and hope he could either hold it up for teammates to join, or flick on to no-one in particular. Predictably, Matuidi and Kante covered immense swathes of ground, but were unable to link well with Payet, and the little West Ham man was often too isolated to create anything on his own without another true creative outlet to work with. There was a Pogba-sized hole in this team in the first half, and it was painfully obvious.
Pogba's substitution for Anthony Martial at halftime was both a welcome change, and a damning indictment of Deschamps' decision to leave him on the subs bench. Whatever the criticisms leveled against the Juventus man, his skillset is simply too important for France, and it showed in the first half against Romania.
Upon Pogba's entrance, France immediately looked like a better team. Despite seemingly being equipped with bright silver skates, slipping several times to his extreme chagrin, Pogba was immediately in the center of everything for France. Clearly heeding Deschamps' criticisms, he kept his early passes simple, playing one and two-touch, before eventually opening play up with longer balls to stretch the Albanian defense. With Pogba on, Dimitri Payet suddenly found more space to operate, while Blaise Matuidi and N'Golo Kante were free to do the yeoman's work they thrive on, swarming around the pitch free of creative responsibility.
Adil Rami's cross for substitute Griezmann to head home smartly in the 90th minute gave France their much-needed goal, but it was Pogba's entrance that really changed the game for Les Bleus. Dimitri Payet rightfully deserves the plaudits for his body of work so far this tournament, and he was brilliant to grab his second goal in stoppage time. Andre-Pierre Gignac is credited with the assist to Payet's goal, but it was Pogba's 70-yard long ball to free the Liga MX striker that truly deserves the credit, putting an emphatic stamp on Pogba's contribution to the match.
Pogba is far from a perfect player, but he's probably the best midfielder in the world right now. If Didier Deschamps' France are going to succeed in this tournament, he's got to figure out how to best utilize Pogboom. If he doesn't, the struggle will continue.
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