After the thumping of Honduras last weekend, Paul Pogba had a few choice words about the game. "I can show you my calves if you want," he said. "They have bruises everywhere."
It meant two things. Firstly, as expected (and no offence to them), the Hondurans played their usual physical game. They kicked the French all around for 90 minutes, Pogba most frequently. The second that Pogba has now become a target. He has reached such a level that not only do his teammates look to him as one of the first options in possession, but opponents fear both him and his influence on the game or on his team.
It was obvious on Sunday that during the 57 minutes he spent on the pitch, Honduras had an "anti-Pogba" plan. Wilson Palacios (sent off before halftime for two bookable offenses) and Roger Espinoza "dealt" with him.
But despite their tight marking and physicality, Pogba impressed. He bossed the midfield, played with great tempo and won the penalty that finally broke Honduras and put France on the way to victory. It was all the more impressive that it was his first-ever World Cup game!
At only 21, Pogba has no fear, feels no pressure and just enjoys himself. "He is like a kid who just wants to play football and enjoys it massively. On top of that, he is so talented that everything comes easy to him," Laurent Koscielny told me recently in regard to his teammate.
If you have watched Pogba this season with Juventus, you are not surprised by his display on Sunday in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Despite a big dip in form after Christmas, mostly because he has played too much for his age, the former Manchester United midfielder has been at that level most of the season: decisive, commanding, bold and impressive.
He has improved so much since joining the Italian champions two summers ago. Antonio Conte has made him more disciplined tactically and has allowed him to express himself better on the pitch. He has also developed his ambitions.
Along with Karim Benzema, the Parisian boy (and Paris Saint-Germain fan) is the most popular French player in Brazil. People are crazy about him. "I didn't know [he was so liked in Brazil]. It is touching, and it's always good to hear things like that. But I will keep my feet on the ground, continue going forward and keep entertaining everybody, Brazil and the whole world," Pogba said last weekend in a news conference. He also added that "a World Cup was worth being played only to be won."
There is a touch of arrogance to Pogba, but this is part of what makes him. That's what pushed him to leave Manchester United because he felt he was not playing enough. That's what made him captain of each and every France youth team, and that's what is making him the player he is now: the best midfielder of his generation and a future France captain.
Yet his arrogance can lead him to do stupid things. There is obviously room for improvement. Pogba needs to be more consistent, keep improving his vision and reading of the game. He still needs to refine his decision-making when he is on the ball.
His only real weakness at present is his temper. He could (should?) have been sent off on Sunday after retaliating to Palacios' aggressive foul. He was lucky to receive just a yellow card, but it was a painful reminder of his dismissal against Spain back in March 2013. It was only his second cap, his first full start for Les Bleus, and he received two yellow cards in the space of three minutes!
Pogba will have to work on this, and fast. Didier Deschamps has his theories. "I am here to help him, to make sure that he controls himself. He plays in a way that gets him kicked a lot," the France manager said. "There is so much hype around him. You [the media] want to present him like the star of the World Cup. Things are going too fast, and it's hard to deal with. He is still young and has still more stages to go through in [his] career."
Deschamps had a long chat with Pogba on Monday, and, like Conte and everybody in France and abroad, he knows that Pogba is a diamond that just needs to be polished. The process has started and has started well. Paul's mom and one of his brothers are in Brazil to watch and support him. Twelve months ago, they were in Turkey for the U-20 World Cup that Pogba won with France and in which he was named player of the tournament. Now, he can confirm in the big clash of Group E against Switzerland on Friday that he is now one of the stars of the real World Cup, the one he has always dreamed of playing in and of winning.
So far, he has done half of the job.