Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe.

Pogba and Mbappe: Leaders of a new generation

As heroes of France's World Cup success last summer, the stars of Manchester United and Paris St-Germain do more than illuminate their clubs; they light the way forward for Les Bleus…

The first indication of the damage that Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe could wreak in tandem with France came in a friendly against Russia in March last year.

With the score 0-0 in the 40th minute of the match at Saint-Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium, Pogba threaded a pass down the inside-left channel to Mbappe, who cut inside Russian defender Roman Neustadter before tucking in France’s opener. Pogba added a second goal with a fine 25-yard free-kick, before Mbappe set the seal on a 3-1 victory in the closing stages.

“They’ve found their marks for this summer,” wrote French sports newspaper L’Equipe.

Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe
Along with Antoine Griezmann, Pogba and Mbappe were the stars of France's World Cup triumph last year.
The pair returned to Russia three months later and would combine in some key moments on France’s march towards World Cup glory.
 
When Mbappe scored the only goal of France’s group-stage win over Peru, Pogba laid the foundations, dispossessing Paolo Guerrero mid-way inside the Peruvian half and teeing up Olivier Giroud, whose deflected shot was tapped in by the teenager.
 
Against Argentina in the last 16, it was another Pogba tackle, this time on Lionel Messi, that precipitated the lung-bursting 70-yard sprint by Mbappe that set France en route to a stunning 4-3 win, the youngster winning a penalty that was converted by Antoine Griezmann.
 
At a pivotal juncture in the final in Moscow, with France defending a slender 2-1 lead against an enterprising Croatia team, the duo linked up again. Pogba’s sublime half-volleyed pass from inside his own half sent Mbappe scampering down the right wing and after his cut-back had been helped on by Griezmann, Pogba scored at the second attempt to carry France to within touching distance of the trophy. Mbappe added a goal of his own six minutes later, drilling home from range to become the youngest World Cup final goalscorer since a 17-year-old Pele in 1958.
 
The two players assumed appropriately prominent roles during the trophy presentation, Mbappe standing beside Hugo Lloris as the France skipper hoisted the golden statuette into the air and Pogba sprawling himself on the sodden turf in front of the podium.
Both hailing from the Paris suburbs, Pogba and Mbappe drew some of the loudest cheers from the fans massed on the Champs-Elysees when the players’ faces were projected onto the Arc de Triomphe in the French capital that evening. Along with Griezmann, they quickly became the symbols of France’s victory.
 
For boy wonder Mbappe, France’s success was simply the latest milestone in a nascent career that has followed a dizzying upwards trajectory ever since he exploded onto the scene with Monaco midway through the 2016/17 season.
 
A youth prodigy, Mbappe spent two years at France’s famed Clairefontaine academy and by the time he reached his mid-teens, he already had clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid queuing up for his signature. A Ligue 1 champion in successive seasons with first Monaco and then Paris Saint-Germain, and a world champion at the age of 19, he has known nothing but success.
 
Pogba’s path to World Cup glory followed a more circuitous route. After beginning his career in the highly regarded youth set-up at Le Havre on France’s northern coast, he spent three years as a youth-team player at Old Trafford before his search for senior involvement prompted the 2012 move to Juventus which pitched him into the international spotlight.
 
Pogba captained France to glory at the Under-20 World Cup in 2013 and was also named Player of the Tournament. The natural expectation was that he would one day become just such a leader for the senior team. He performed sporadically at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but was able to console himself with the tournament’s Best Young Player award.
French writer Eric Naulleau says

“Mbappe embodies a new moment in French football, a kind of national unity. It’s the first time in a decade that we have a player with whom the whole of France identifies positively.”

On the eve of Euro 2016, L’Equipe put Pogba on its front page and asked if this would be the tournament when he proved himself a worthy successor to such France greats as Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane.
 
As it happened, it would be Griezmann who emerged as France’s key player and, after the hosts fell to Portugal in the final, Pogba was felt to have let the tournament pass him by.
 
The midfielder reached a turning point in his international career following France’s opening game at last year’s World Cup. After Didier Deschamps angrily upbraided his players for their sloppiness in an unconvincing 2-1 win over Australia, the squad’s senior figures sat down and decided things had to change. Pogba symbolised the new approach that emerged from that meeting better than anyone.
 
On the pitch, he very deliberately pared down his game, eschewing the showy touches and speculative shots for which he has often been criticised in favour of dogged tackling and quick forward passing.
“I want to win the World Cup and you have to make sacrifices,”
he said. In the changing room, he belatedly became the patron he was always supposed to become, setting the tone for the team’s gritty performances with some stirring pre-match speeches.
 
“I can tell you that Paul Pogba – and I don't know how, and I don't know from where – became a leader,”
said centre-back Adil Rami.
Kylian Mbappe
Mbappe has already won two Ligue 1 titles and a World Cup at just 20 years of age.
Following the squad’s return to Paris, Pogba took on the role of master of ceremonies as the players caroused on the steps of the Elysees Palace. A documentary about France’s World Cup triumph that was broadcast on TF1 a week later, which captured his transformation into a figurehead, only served to further embed him in the affections of the French public.
 
After years of scandals and underachievement for the France national team, Pogba and Mbappe symbolise the new, modern face of Les Bleus: confident, clean-living, image-conscious and, above all, successful. Engaging and articulate, the privately educated Mbappe is seen in particular to represent a refreshing antidote to the cliché of the ‘bling bling’ bad-boy footballer from the Parisian banlieues.
 
“He embodies a new moment in French football, a kind of national unity that we’ve not been used to in the last few years,”
French writer and television presenter Eric Naulleau told Le Parisien last year.
“It’s the first time in a decade that we have a player with whom the whole of France identifies positively.”
 
This season, both Mbappe and Pogba have taken on different roles to the ones they adopted for France at the World Cup.
 
Where Pogba spent last summer toiling in France’s midfield engine room alongside N’Golo Kante, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival as caretaker United manager has enabled him to play his natural game. Positioned in a more advanced role and with both Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic providing cover behind him, the 25-year-old now has more freedom to get forward and has already produced his best goalscoring figures for a single campaign.
Paul Pogba scores a penalty against Fulham
Pogba netted his 13th goal of the season when scoring from the spot at Fulham.
Mbappe played on the right for France in Russia, as he did during his first season at PSG under Unai Emery, but he has been given more opportunities to play through the centre by Emery’s successor, Thomas Tuchel.
 
After testing out several formations over the season’s early weeks, Tuchel hit on a winning formula for PSG’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the Champions League group phase at the end of November, with Mbappe partnering Edinson Cavani at the sharp end of a loose-limbed 4-4-2 system. While Neymar remains PSG’s most influential attacking player, Mbappe is their top scorer this term.
 
There was disappointment in France that neither Mbappe – who turned 20 in December – nor Pogba managed to win the 2018 Ballon d’Or, with the PSG striker coming fourth in the voting and the United midfielder 15th.
 
Neither player has made a secret of their desire to one day claim the gilded orb and if either is to triumph in 2019, their performances in this season’s Champions League will go a long way towards defining their chances of success.
 
Having spent 2018 pulling in the same direction, France’s golden boys now find themselves in opposition.
 
This article appears in tonight's issue of United Review. To read more features like this, you can purchase a copy at Old Trafford. If you're not attending the match, you can buy it via manutd.com/programme
 
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