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It’s been less than two months since Paul Pogba led France to their second World Cup title and this week the midfielder returned to the tranquil surroundings of Clairefontaine.
France will play Germany in their first-ever UEFA Nations League match on Thursday with 22 of Didier Deschamps’ title-winning 23 reporting for duty.
The perception of Pogba in France at the moment could scarcely be any different to the one in England, where he has become a lightning rod for Manchester United’s ills. His performance – and penalty miss – last weekend against Burnley was ridiculed even though United ended up winning the game comfortably.
That criticism is added to the pile that has plagued Pogba since returning from the World Cup . Displays against Brighton and Tottenham were heavily scrutinised, and totally at odds with the praise Pogba was winning during the summer.
“Paul Pogba plays for himself, it’s all about how cool he looks, showing us how clever he is,” Graeme Souness wrote in The Sunday Times . “I reckon Pogba’s only in the team to maintain his transfer value until United can sell him, because he doesn’t merit his place for any other reason.”
It comes on the back of a tough few weeks for Pogba, whose struggles under United manager Jose Mourinho have been well documented.
Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola has come into conflict with United great Paul Scholes over his player’s status in the United squad and there is a perception that fan sentiment has turned towards Mourinho in any battle involving the two.
So, this week’s international break might well have come at the right time for the 25-year-old, who will have time to recharge and be given a reminder of his capabilities.
France team-mate and good friend Antoine Griezmann revealed to the press this week that he was surprised by the level to which Pogba adopted that leadership role in Russia during the World Cup.
“Paul really took it up a notch in the locker room,” Griezmann told L’Equipe . “He had the right words which pushed us. Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane and Blaise Matuidi, we know they were leaders, but Pogba surprised us more and made us feel good.”
It was the tournament in which Pogba became a man and demonstrated – as if it needed to be said – that he was capable of running a midfield in a top-quality team and making positive contributions.
And adding to the sense of maturity, Pogba himself has been vocal this week about the need for France’s world champions to consider themselves as role models for the next generation in light of Hugo Lloris’s drink-driving arrest.
“After this World Cup, children will have the image we had at the 1998 World Cup,” he told RMC Sport .
“We’ll be role models for these children. That’s why you have to lead by example. Even if you don’t want to, you have to lead by example.”
Winning trophies is something Pogba has become accustomed to with France – but also in his club career with Juventus and even at Manchester United.
He won four Serie A titles in succession before returning home. The gold has flowed at Old Trafford as well but there is a notable distinction between the kind of titles Pogba was winning for Juventus and the ones he’s got his hands on at Manchester United.
He wasn’t signed as the world’s most expensive player to win only the EFL Cup and the Europa League. Pogba – now a world champion and a flagship player for his club – must be setting his sights a little higher.
In the past few days it’s been interesting in that respect to note the overtures coming from Barcelona towards Pogba in the press.
First it was Gerard Pique and now Luis Suarez has followed suit . The striker – who moved to Barcelona and won the Champions League in his first season – pointed out that Pogba would now want more trophies to capitalise on his World Cup win. The implication was that he could get them with Barcelona.
“Pogba is an elite player – he has won everything,” Suarez told RAC1 . “He has a lot of quality and he is a key player for United.
“I think he would like to be competing for more [silverware] than he is at the moment. He may not be a Barca player yet, but he would always be welcome.”
There has been speculation that Pogba’s position at United under Mourinho led him and Raiola to consider a move to Barca over the summer. And it follows a familiar pattern when Barca’s star players start talking up potential transfer targets in the media.
How close Pogba can get to matching his international honours at club level will depend largely on how quickly Mourinho sorts out United. They are already two defeats down in this Premier League season with Pogba himself shouldering the brunt of the blame. Right now, it’s unlikely that United have anything like the consistency or the quality to match the output of Manchester City in the league and any one of about five or six leading teams competing for the Champions League.
Now that he’s out of the eye of the storm Pogba has time again to consider his status as world champion and how that compares to the treatment he’s getting in his day job.