Euro 2020 will surely go down as one of the all-time great international tournaments in living memory, such has been the quality and excitement on show.
Arguably the best match of the competition thus far, and maybe one of the best ever, was Switzerland’s shock defeat of world champions France, which was suitably settled by a penalty shootout after ending 3-3 in 120 minutes of non-stop, mind-blowing drama.
Les Bleus’ top performer on the night was undoubtedly Paul Pogba, who was arguably the frontrunner for the Player of the Tournament award before his side were unceremoniously eliminated.
Although it was a catastrophic night for the French, Pogba’s distribution was a sight to behold.
The Manchester United midfielder’s precision passing ripped the Swiss defence apart all night long, completing more passes (73) than any of his teammates and with the third-best success rate (91 per cent).
But it was the technique and range of passing that mesmerised viewers rather than the sheer number of them. In the 21st minute he sent a 40-yard pass over the top to put Kylian Mbappe in a great position to score — with one touch.
In the 56th minute he set up the PSG striker again, but this time he drove to edge of the penalty area, sucking in the entire defence before releasing his teammate in the box for a golden opportunity.
In extra-time Pogba teed up Mbappé yet again with a gorgeous through-ball that took out Switzerland’s back five, only for the forward to miss once more.
The 28-year-old’s piece de resistance, though, came at the end of a wild 20-minute period for France in which they scored three goals. He picked up a rebound about 20 yards out before unleashing a rocket of a strike into the top right-hand corner of Yann Sommer’s net. It was a hell of a way to get his first international goal since the World Cup final in 2018.
That was that in everyone’s minds, as there was surely no way back for the Swiss with 15 minutes remaining, but Hasan Seferovic scored his second header of the game not long after.
The decisive moment came in the final seconds of normal time, as Pogba received the ball in midfield but was robbed by Christian Fassnacht, who had come off the bench just ten minutes earlier. From there Granit Xhaka played it to Mario Gavranovic, who skinned Presnel Kimpembe before an excellent finish past Hugo Lloris.
From that point it felt like destiny was on Switzerland’s side, particularly when Kingsley Coman’s rasping shot could only find the crossbar in the final moments of a classic encounter.
What was to come after also felt inevitable, to the point that even Pogba’s superb spot kick and Mbappe’s miss were never going to be enough to spare the United man from the wrath of armchair criticism online and in the punditry booth.
He was predictably excoriated on ITV, with former United general Roy Keane leading the chorus.
“I’d be looking at the goal they conceded in injury time, where he was really sloppy in midfield. That’s the bit I would be critical of,” the Irishman said.
“That seems harsh because he has done some brilliant stuff tonight. There is no doubting Paul’s quality, but it is just the other stuff, his maturity… he doesn’t have the discipline [to play in a double pivot].
“Even tonight, he leaves you frustrated. For all of the brilliant qualities going forward, I still think he lacks the discipline defensively. That’s the key [to go to the next level].
“The top players do it week in, week out. Paul doesn’t do that.”
Not even the most ardent Pogba supporter could argue that his time at United hasn’t been tinged with disappointment, with the midfielder failing to reach the kind of heights that Keane speaks of. But it’s hard to see where Keane is coming from when he speaks about “maturity” when this wasn’t the remotely the problem in the France game.
It begs the question: why is it always like this when it comes to Pogba? Why does one mistake always have to devolve into a long-winded discussion about his character?
Patrick Vieira chimed in to support Keane, arguing Pogba needs a midfield partner like the Irishman to get the best out of him.
“Obviously it is frustrating because he can give much more than what he gives to the team,” the former Arsenal man concluded.
It was an odd conclusion given just how much Pogba had given that night, in what was one of the the best individual performance in a France shirt since Zinedine Zidane against Brazil at the 2006 World Cup.
A lack of concentration and taking too much of the ball are parts of his game that warrant scrutiny. It has cost United on occasion and it hurt France this week. But such moments need to be kept in perspective and not used as convenient ammunition as part of an agenda against a player.
The criticisms of Pogba could be taken in good faith if there was any actual analysis of what happened in the build-up to the goal, rather than reductive takes that leave zero margin for error or benefit of the doubt.
When Pogba received the ball from Karim Benzema in midfield, there were two Swiss players directly in front of him. For some reason France’s front three were all pushed high up the pitch, despite defending a slender lead, and weren’t available for the pass.
Barely a second after Pogba had controlled the ball, Fassnacht came in at his blind side to steal it from him and give it to Xhaka. At this point France were not in immediate danger, but their midfield is completely exposed. With one pass the Arsenal midfielder took N’Golo Kante out of the game and set up Gavranovic.
Even after sitting down Kimpembe it was not an easy chance for the Dinamo Zagreb forward, but he smacked it low and hard into the bottom left corner of the goal from just inside the box. A marvellous goal to mark a wonderful night for the Swiss, but this was a systems failure from the French, of which Pogba’s dispossession was just one part.
Of course, if Mbappe finishes off just one of the many brilliant chances for which Pogba set him up, or scores the decisive penalty in the shootout, then this conversation becomes irrelevant.
Do you think the criticism of Pogba is fair or has he become a convenient scapegoat? Have your say in the comments.
This was a game that should never have been in doubt for France when comparing the talent level between the two sides, but Didier Deschamps made it unnecessarily tricky for his side with his team selection and substitutions.
When all is said and done on Euro 2020, Pogba should come out of this tournament with his reputation enhanced. But it just goes to show, it will always be the same story so long as he is involved in English football. One has to wonder what will it take to please the doubters.