There is no more unfairly maligned and underappreciated soccer player in the world than Paul Pogba. Nobody who has dealt with more misguided criticism over the past year. And there is no stage more ripe for that criticism to explode into a firestorm of absurdity than the World Cup. Through 45 minutes of France’s opener in Russia, it was simmering.
But five days later, instead, Pogba hasn’t just flipped the narrative on its head; he’s the one separating Les Bleus from a nationwide freak-out. He’s the reason they have six points instead of two. He’s the reason their through to the knockout rounds with one game to spare, and a reason they remain among the World Cup favorites.
Pogba didn’t score the only goal of France’s 1-0 win over Peru on Thursday, nor did he score either of two in a 2-1 victory over Australia. But he’s created all three.
His latest moment of brilliant secured France’s progression to the last 16 despite a spirited Peruvian performance. With the match in the balance late in the first half, Pogba pressed and pounced on a slightly loose Peruvian touch. He unlocked the defense with a delicate through-ball to Olivier Giroud. Seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net:
Plays like those, of two-way superiority, demonstrate Pogba’s value. And they demonstrate why France can win without fulfilling all the potential that its talent suggests it should have.
France continues to underwhelm, win anyways
France isn’t as good as it should be. It isn’t the free-flowing attacking unit it could be. Didier Deschamps still hasn’t found the formula to get the most out of his many stars. Those points have been beaten to death over the past month, because they’re completely legitimate and true.
But sometimes piling stars onto a soccer field is in itself a sufficient formula, no matter how many of those stars are out of position or misused. France doesn’t have to suffocate opponents. It doesn’t need 70 percent of the ball. It doesn’t have to create loads of high-quality chances. It doesn’t have to eradicate all its problems – because it has players like Pogba, and Kylian Mbappe, and Antoine Griezmann. The latter two combined with Giroud for a couple of “nearly” moments in the first half Thursday. They combined with each other to set up left back Lucas Hernandez for a great chance at the end of France’s best team move.
Deschamps made some downright strange lineup tweaks for Thursday’s match. He played Blaise Matuidi as something resembling a left winger. He seemingly played Pogba – often better the further up the field he is – as a holding midfielder.
But despite the formational constraints, Pogba did his thing. Deschamps can continue to dance around actual solutions without finding one. Even if he never stumbles upon one, France is dangerous – because Pogba can continue to do his thing, and Mbappe can carve up defenses; because great players can create positivity out of nothing.
N’Golo Kante’s impact
And on the defensive side of the ball, N’Golo Kante renders structure unnecessary. Kante played on the right side of a two-man central midfield. With Mbappe and Griezmann ahead of him, and Pogba clamoring to get forward beside him, France theoretically could have been exposed.
But Kante was everywhere. He put up a roadblock in his designated area and relieved Mbappe of most of the 19-year-old’s defensive responsibility. He made four interceptions, five tackles and six blocks, all on the far-right side of the field.
Like he has been for Leicester City and Chelsea at club level, Kante does the work of two men. He effectively gives a team an 11.5-on-11 advantage. He, too, is a reason France can win despite Deschamps.
The story of Peru’s first World Cup since 1982 will be similar to that of Morocco’s. La Blanquirroja was bounced before it could record a goal or a point. But it still garnered rave reviews for the way it approached the tournament, the way it savored the experience, and the beauty of all kinds it brought to the spectacle.
Peru had its chances Thursday. It had the majority of the ball in the second half. Pedro Aquino clipped the outside of the post with a rocket on 50 minutes.
Several adventures into the penalty area only barely went to waste.
Peru lost Group C in its opener, not on Thursday. A dominant performance was ruined by Christian Cueva’s missed penalty, and by an incisive Denmark counterattack. In both games, the end product just wasn’t there.
But Peruvians – the thousands that turned Russian cities into Lima Northeast, and the millions back home – will be proud of their team. They’ll weep along with them, but they’ll celebrate them. And they should.
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