Kylian Mbappé’s rifle-shot goal that put the World Cup final firmly in France’s grasp was a fitting flourish on what had been a tremendous tournament for the 19-year-old prodigy. If France’s run to glory was paced by one player, it was Mbappé, whose reality bending runs and lethal finishing elevated his team to a level above the competition. But there was also Paul Pogba.
Finishing is the hardest thing to do in soccer, but solving the problem of how to put the ball into the net is one teams never even get to approach unless they have some means by which to move the ball forward. For France, Pogba was that means.
Pogba, at least when playing with the France team, is not the kind of midfielder who is constantly flitting between defensive lines and finding pockets of space from which to kickstart attacks, nor is he a bulldog who is always looking to turn a defender and rumble 30 yards downfield on his own. Pogba’s more resolute, the kind of midfielder who likes to have the action laid out in front of him as he slows down or speeds things up, waiting for the opening he’s looking for to present itself. This all starts with his uncanny strength and balance.
Like Mbappé, Pogba’s physical presence on the field is one you simply can’t miss. His body presents something of an optical illusion. When Eden Hazard sticks his ass out to absorb an onrushing defender and rolls the poor sucker into the ground before continuing on his way, it makes sense because Eden Hazard is very strong and very fast and very low to the ground. Pogba, with all his lank, seems to present an easier target. A well-timed shove to the shoulder or hip must be all it takes to send his 6-foot-3 frame clattering across the field, right? It almost never is.
If you watched France play at all during this tournament, you saw Pogba repeatedly shrug off tackles that barely seemed to register his notice. You saw him routinely dribble the ball 10 or 15 yards up the field while some defender bumped and kicked and pulled on him, like a pet begging for a treat. Pogba would just keep moving, his head up, always looking for that one game-breaking pass to make.
He made plenty of those, and from just about every angle imaginable. He played 30-yard, outside-foot diagonal balls that hit teammates right in stride; he pinged perfectly weighted through balls that split center backs and left keepers rooted to their lines; he chipped lobs into the box that caught entire back lines flat-footed. Whenever the ball was at Pogba’s feet, it felt like France were mere seconds away from being in on goal.
The final brought Pogba’s finest moment of the tournament, in which he released Mbappé with an absurdly accurate pass that he’d volleyed out of mid-air, and then got himself upfield in time to finish things off:
This sequence of course stands out because it led to a goal, but Pogba’s tournament performance deserves to be praised in its totality. Not every balls-out pass led to a goal or even found its target, but he kept making them, over and over again. Not every run in which he discarded defenders like lint from a sweater sparked an intricate scoring move, but he kept making them, over and over again. Mbappé hit the tournament like a series of lightning strikes, dotting the field with scorched and petrified opponents. But Pogba was the steady rumble of the storm. In the end, there was no escaping it.