Two wins in their opening two games has France through to the next phase of the World Cup, yet criticism still surrounds a team that is not only expected to go far at the tournament in Russia, but to do so with a certain flair and panache which hasn’t characterised performances so far. The side managed by Didier Deschamps certainly boasts a fine array of technically gifted stars, but on the whole, the matches against Australia and Peru weren’t exactly sparkling with many examples of collective or individual brilliance.
To be fair, the 2018 World Cup has been anything but straightforward for many of the favourites, with the lesser fancied nations providing much stiffer competition than might have been expected. An Argentina side boasting arguably the most naturally gifted footballer in the world, Lionel Messi, was held to a draw by none other than Iceland, then soundly and comprehensively beaten by Croatia. Brazil were held to a draw by Switzerland in their opening game, before only managing to beat Costa Rica in the extremes of stoppage time. After the blockbuster 3-3 draw between Portugal and Spain, both struggled to 1-0 wins against Morocco and Iran, respectively.
Even the reigning champions have suffered, with Germany beaten by Mexico in their opening encounter, before rediscovering the resolve they’re renowned for, winning their next game against Sweden with practically the last kick of the game and ten men on the pitch. By comparison, France are now considered more reliable contenders to win the World Cup thanks to their two victories, which almost makes things look comfortable for them, when stacked up against the other favourites at the tournament. However, Deschamps and his gifted team of players still bear the brunt of much criticism from the media, apparently lacking a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ desirability to their displays thus far, to use the famous French euphemism.
Pivotal Pogba reacts to the criticism
One player whose every move is under great scrutiny at this World Cup is Paul Pogba, which is no different to the glare of the media spotlight he faces week in week out at Manchester United, particularly considering the huge transfer fee they paid to get him back to Old Trafford. Few players came out of the performance against Australia unscathed, but despite France winning the opening encounter 2-1 and Pogba’s decisive involvement in both goals, the media back home were still less than impressed with his contribution.
“I am less entitled to make mistakes than others. I went from the biggest transfer in the world to the most criticised player in the world,” Pogba is quoted as saying by The Guardian, suggesting that he really isn’t interested in what the press thinks of his displays or their habitual criticism. “It’s about what happens on the pitch and I treat the criticism like I did when I was playing on the block as a kid. I don’t listen to it. I’m having fun and that’s the only answer I can give to all those people who criticise me or think I am this or that. Everybody has opinions,” he underlined.
Individually speaking, Pogba produced a much more rounded display against Peru in the second Group C match against Peru and hardly put a foot wrong. Again, France won by just a single goal against another side they were probably expected to beat by a more comfortable margin, although the overall performance and cohesiveness the team demonstrated was significantly better. This probably had as much to do with Deschamps switching back to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 shape, which restored a greater semblance of balance that had been conspicuous by its absence in the first match of the tournament.
Along with changes in personnel, most notably Olivier Giroud up top and Blaise Matuidi on the left, playing alongside N’Golo Kante in a more orthodox midfield double-pivot, Pogba flourished with a great deal more certainty and assuredness. Defending and attacking more incisively, the 25-year-old also had a hand in the French goal scored against Peru, setting up Giroud’s goal-bound effort that Mbappe would eventually claim.
Nevertheless, the conundrum still remains about which role and set of instructions suit Pogba best. It’s a question that Mourinho has posed at Man United as often as Deschamps has with France, although neither seem to have quite found the answer as of yet. Needless to say, Pogba has tended to shine most often when playing as a box-to-box midfielder alongside the anchoring midfield security that Kante provides with such consistency. Something that perhaps influenced his club in the signing of Brazilian midfielder Fred this summer, who is expected to fit a similar profile for the Red Devils.
More to come from Mbappé
Despite what appeared to be a somewhat limited individual display by Mbappe against Australia, it’s often easy to forget that we’re talking about a 19-year-old youngster, regardless of already building a great reputation with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Any doubts about what he can offer were quickly forgotten it seems, after he became the youngest Frenchman to score at a World Cup tournament, in the subsequent match against Peru.
Capable of producing impressive and dazzling moments of brilliance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s quite possibly shackled by instructions from Deschamps, who would prefer him to assist more defensively in the overall game plan. That said, the tricks performed against Peru were an indication that Mbappe may rebel against such restrictions and is keen to break free of any shackles, which is arguably when he demonstrates the very best of his talents. He is, after all, a supremely talented attacking player who should be left to focus on what he does best.
When looking at how far France can go at the 2018 tournament in Russia, Mbappe is statistically one of their best players after the first two matches. Providing that he’s given the liberty to do what comes naturally to his impressive set of skills, then Mbappe could prove to be a more decisive player than Antoine Griezmann, who Deschamps so often seems to shape his tactical decisions around most frequently.