As France beat Croatia in the final and won the World Cup for only the second time in their history, this exhilarating tournament – for once, did not produce the unexpected as it had done pretty much throughout these last 30 days.
In a competition that was littered with shock goals and surprise victories at every stage, the final – being ‘the fixture’ was somehow, an outlier – in that, not only was the result fairly expected, but the manner in particular, all too familiar, if only one had paid attention to the eventual Champions from the very beginning of this tournament.
Once again, it was Deschamps’ France, winning a football match – not by utterly dominating the opposition and claiming victory by a cold-blooded knockout, but just by being able to stay in the fight, long enough to wear the opponent down only to finish off with the all-crucial one-two in the face – at the crucial moment.
For a team managed by a man known for resilience as a defensive midfielder in his playing days, it would seem fitting that he would win the competition again – 20 years later – with a team unmistakably shaped in his image.
After narrowly losing out in the final in the European Championships two years earlier, there was always a sense of whether this team could at long last, find that ability to wriggle out of a tough situation through individual brilliance, which they quite evidently, possessed in abundance; or whether they could conjure up a piece of magic in a tight game that could get them over the line, if their counter-punching style of play failed on the day?
And all of those questions and more were answered; rather emphatically every time they stepped on to the field in the knockout stages.
Paul Pogba played 539 minutes in 6 matches in the World Cup – predominantly as part of a midfield two alongside the equally prodigious N’Golo Kante – as his partner in crime. This provided the Les Bleus with an axis – that had everything it needed for the team to function around it; although not without its limitations. The Man United midfielder grew into the tournament and really came into his own in the latter stages; especially in the semi-finals and finals – when he scored what is essentially the goal, that won the World Cup for his nation.
Kante and Pogba complemented each other very well but what made Pogba particularly tick was the pace and guile and in front of him that even when he was restrained at times in both the semi-final and the final – he was able to find the right pass because he had options in front as the team constantly tried to hit from the break, through Mbappe and Griezmann.
In the semi-final against Belgium, Pogba produced a defensive performance from a deeper midfield role which simply disproved all his detractors (I’m watching you, Mr Souness).
It was as disciplined a display as one could get from a naturally attacking player like Paul; as the 25-year old put in a fine shift and France, under Deschamps, as a whole collectively defended the 1-0 lead against Belgium for almost the entirety of second half, managing just 36% possession – in a sacrifice that paid off.
While it is easier to imagine the Frenchman doing this at Manchester United in patches; when the occasion really demanded such a performance, it is rather detrimental to the club; to keep its best outfield player (arguably) from playing to his strengths in a longer and harder competition to win than the World Cup – which requires a different kind of approach to a 38-game Premier League where the level of competition is higher and more sustained.
It is important that Jose Mourinho – who in his recent press conference, mentioned that the need for Paul Pogba to “understand why he was good at the World Cup”, also understands that the circumstances – that were necessary for the 25-year old to show that side of his game at the World Cup, which he really is capable of playing – are not the same as the rigours of showing up week-in-week-out for Manchester United.