Paul Pogba becoming France's leader but could be unstoppable in right system
A good barometer of Paul Pogba's mood has always been his relationship with the French media. When he is happy, he talks. When he is not, he doesn't. Often, his happiness comes when he is playing well. And right now, he is very happy.
On Sunday, for the first time in four years, he gave a news conference as a France player. The last time we saw Pogba do this was during the 2014 World Cup -- since then, he had always refused. "I love you so much. I have missed you" he told the waiting journalists as he arrived at the conference ahead of Tuesday's game against Denmark.
He has also stopped to talk to reporters at length in the mixed zone after France's two matches at the World Cup so far.
It has been an interesting World Cup so far for the midfielder. He was average in the first half against Australia but good after the break when he was heavily involved in his team's two goals as they sealed a 2-1 win. Then he was excellent in the first 45 minutes against Peru, creating France's only goal, and controlled the second half when he had to defend more than attack. Notably he raised his performance from the first game to the second.
The tactical changes that Didier Deschamps has brought in have helped him. Pogba was far more influential in a midfield two in the 4-4-2 formation France played against Peru than on the left in a midfield three against Australia in a 4-3-3 formation. He sees more of the ball with only two midfielders in the side and his understanding with N'Golo Kante is excellent.
But he still has to curb his instincts. There was a moment in the first half against Peru when Pogba tried a trick, lost the ball but was lucky to be given a free kick by the referee. Deschamps went mad on the touchline.
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"I know he wants me to simplify my game," Pogba explained after the game. "He has always had faith in me. His advice are the best, on and off the pitch. He tells me to stay confident and be myself. We have a great relationship."
Former France international Robert Pires told ESPN FC that as long as he remembers his defensive responsibilities then the midfielder can be unstoppable.
"I think we saw a very mature Paul Pogba against Peru in the way he managed the game," he said. "He played simple football and was effective. He was the one dictating the pace in the first half. When France dropped a bit deeper in the second half, he was working hard defensively.
"In a 4-4-2 with Kante, Paul has more responsibilities and there is more room for him in midfield as well than in a 4-3-3. It is a system that suits him well as long as he is ready to put the efforts in and defend. Because with the ball, there is no worries, he is one of the best midfielders in the world."
Pogba's comments before the World Cup about wanting to be France's leader on the pitch were right in spirit, but it was notable that he scaled back that ambition when he touched upon it on Sunday: "It is not for me to say if I am a boss or not. I am ready to give everything for France."
So far at this World Cup, he has behaved like the leader on and off the field. He was not happy after the Australia game and sources told ESPN FC that he even had a go at Deschamps in a heated team meeting two days after the match, telling his manager that there were some instructions the players didn't understand. Leaders defend their teammates and that's what he did.
Off the field, Pogba is Pogba. He wears those big diamond studded PP earrings. To find his room at France's HQ is easy: it is the one where the music is the loudest. He dances, he sings, he beats everyone else on the Playstation.
"I am just me. I am not playing a role. I have always liked laughing and dancing," he said on Sunday. "The most important is to play football, to have fun and enjoy myself. It is a child's dream to be here. I want to enjoy as much as possible."
Pogba should be rested by Deschamps on Tuesday against Denmark as Les Bleus are already qualified and need only a draw to top their group as well. But the best young player at the 2014 World Cup, whose target is to be the best player at 2018, will be back for the knockout stages, where things matter the most.
If France want to see the best of him, as they have already, then Deschamps' tactical system has to play to his strengths. It's down to Pogba to make sure that he does what is required to ensure his team benefit.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.