Opinion: Paul Pogba has come a long way
On Sunday, 22 men will have the focus of the entire planet on their every move in Moscow, during what is the absolute pinnacle of the game - the World Cup final.
Of all the thousands upon thousands of people who play football – the kids up and down the country, the Sunday Leaguers, the five-a-siders, the more structured divisions, those fortunate enough to get paid to play, the elite who make a living out of it - it all boils down to this one match and the two teams.
The pressure on Pogba to deliver is something he can handle. It’s the second successive major international final for him and Les Bleus - and his performance again against Belgium proved he is one of the best footballers in the world. He has come a long way.
The midfielder’s display was so disciplined against Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini’s Rode Duivels, showing such intelligence and desire.
Whether heading clear from close to his own goal, keeping tabs on Fellaini’s aerial threat and the slippery Eden Hazard, or springing forward with purpose and showing the right selection of pass, he was excellent.
He should really have had an assist or two in the closing stages when France threatened to put the tie to bed.
Yet the soundtrack to much of his time in the Manchester United Reserves was of coach Warren Joyce barking instructions to the youngster. Joyce is somebody who demands the maximum from his players and prepared them for men’s football, after the freedom and more carefree nature of the youth game. I would imagine it was hard for the extravagantly gifted rookie to appreciate the dirty work needs doing too.
’Pogba, Pogba!’ Joyce would yell from the touchline, often paying particular attention to the Frenchman’s positioning. I think we all knew why he was getting this level of attention – it was because he was special. As he followed Didier Deschamps’s instructions in St Petersburg, it reminded me of these early days in the midfield man’s career, as he made that step into senior football.
Another match at that level came when Pogba had already experienced a taste of the first team and it felt like something of an audition to impress Sir Alex Ferguson. In this respect, he had delivered but the game was a draw heading into the final stages. Job done, Paul, I thought you have performed well and your individual display was excellent. It wasn’t enough. He won the game with a late header, which in the overall scheme in the things, was never going to decide whether he would become a top star.
Yet you would never have guessed that from his reaction. He ran to the sparse crowd to celebrate with one of his brothers, his joy at winning the match with his mates obvious. This tallies with a story Joyce would tell as well, of how Pogba’s Bosman move to Juventus had already been sealed when there was still a final match of the Reserves season to play. The Manchester Senior Cup will not be that prominent, you would imagine, in his medal cabinet when he retires from football but he wanted to win it, remain part of the team and, potentially, risk an injury that might jeopardise the move to Turin.
United beat Manchester City 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium that night and, again, did it contribute too much to the bigger picture? No, not really but it felt good being at the Blues’ ground that night, so soon after the Sergio Aguero moment and the late twist to the Premier League title race. City fans had come to celebrate but were beaten by a side full of determination and vigour, offering signs the future was bright. Nobody more than Pogba, who was outstanding.
Off he went to Juventus, only to come back with his reputation established as one of the finest midfielders in football. But he had learned his craft with United, been taught that having all the skill in the world means nothing unless it’s allied to a work ethic and a feeling the team comes first. The evidence has always suggested Pogba loves playing football, is a sore loser and appreciates the camaraderie and spirit of this team game.
He’s come a long way from bullying young Scousers at Finch Farm and those many games on training pitches where opponents would try to kick him and knock him out of his stride. On Tuesday, nothing was unsettling this world-class star and he is one of the few who will get to live the dream of every person who ever kicked a ball in Moscow on Sunday. He’s certainly come a long way.
And, you know what? Maybe those things that didn’t seem to matter on this journey, really did.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.