France enter Euro 2020 as one of the tournament favourites with a loaded squad, fronted by stars like Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and especially Paul Pogba.
As current world champions, Les Bleus will be out to emulate the first French World Cup winners, who managed to add the Euros to their trophy cabinet back in 2000 when David Trezeguet’s golden goal against Italy sealed their victory.
However unlike Roger Lemerre’s team, this present incarnation lost a major final before tasting unbridled joy. At the Stade de France in Euro 2016, France fell to Portugal in what was meant to be Paul Pogba’s final, who at the time was pulling up trees in Italy with Juventus, and even led them to a Champions League final the previous year. But Pogba underwhelmed as Portugal won.
Things changed two years later in Russia, as Pogba scored the decisive goal in the 2018 World Cup final having been one of France’s best players throughout the tournament. He might not have made FIFA’s All-Star Team (based on player performances and statistical data), but Pogba’s worth in and out of possession was clear for all to see.
Obviously the goal in the final was special, but Pogba’s true value came to light after the tournament as videos emerged of his inspirational team-talk before it. The act of inspiring his team to go on and win the tournament clearly demonstrated the leadership potential of a player often derided as self-absorbed.
So what changed in between those two finals? In short, a boy became a man. Pogba’s return to Manchester United after Euro 2016 has not been universally successful, as the Frenchman has failed to win a Premier League or Champions League. But although he has become a divisive figure among the fanbase, every single teammate seems to adore him.
“For me, playing with Paul, it’s playing with one of the best players in the world. So I think the best of me comes out,” said Pogba’s Man Utd teammate Bruno Fernandes. The reaction to Pogba among the French national side is the same, as the team talk showed.
“About Pogba, of course we could talk about him being unquestionable,” the French national team boss Didier Deschamps recently said. “He is one of the leaders, he has this capacity to be decisive and also to be a leader in the group.”
“He is one of the most important players of the team.”
Deschamps’ generosity towards Pogba may seem surprising given how pragmatic a coach he seems to be. But it makes perfect sense when you consider that he modelled his French side after the 1998 World Cup winning side in which he played, a side that also depended so much on an inconsistent, temperamental midfield genius for inspiration.
Then it was Zinedine Zidane, now it is Paul Pogba. So of course Deschamps understands the value of Pogba, a warrior who can nevertheless add serious spice and creative brilliance to the solid team structure France usually play with.
That’s to not say Pogba is the new Zidane. He just occupies the same role in the tactical template Deschamps uses. And this is a role he excels in, which subsequently enhances both France’s chances of winning Euro 2020 and his individual chances of being named player of the tournament (he’s currently the joint-ninth favourite to win at 25/1 with William Hill).
Euro 2020 Uefa Player of the Tournament favourites with William Hill:
- Kylian Mbappe (8/1)
- Kevin De Bruyne (8/1)
- Harry Kane (11/1)
- Romelu Lukaku (16/1)
- Cristiano Ronaldo (20/1)
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)
You can say he’s tailor-made for this system, one that accentuates his positives while hiding the negatives. Just as Zidane was.
Despite being a team sport, the individual accolades tend to favour the attacking players. It’s why Luka Modric’s success in 2018 felt so refreshing. Often (unfairly and ridiculously) accused of playing better for his national team, Pogba stands on the brink of following in his idol’s footsteps.
Michel Platini and Zidane rose to the occasion and, following a disappointing Europa League final, expect a similar upturn in performance from Manchester United’s record acquisition this summer.