It was the teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe who stole the attention of the world with his Pele-esque performance against Argentina on Saturday, but France laid down a marker for their rivals to match with good displays all over the pitch.
One player who shone in a more restrained role than we are used to seeing was Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, who played a key part as France dominated the midfield and as a result, the match.
A mature performance from a maturing player
This wasn’t the Pogba that fans and pundits apparently expected after watching his Juventus highlight reel ahead of his return to Old Trafford.
He did not barrel his way through the heart of the Argentina side before launching a shot into the top corner from 30 yards. It wasn’t a performance of flicks and tricks or showmanship.
It was a mature midfield performance, one that was crucial in laying the foundations for France’s historic victory.
Reuters/CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS
Given Pogba’s unconvincing displays at times for his country, you could argue that the game was a coming of age for him as much as it was for Mbappe.
Plenty of French fans would have had him on the bench before the tournament, with Corentin Tolisso the most likely replacement.
Hard work in defence and attack
Now, despite the fact that he still has hair and posted on Instagram after the game, it appears Pogba has settled into his role.
With six ball recoveries, he won back possession for his side more often than any other player of the pitch. That’s no mean feat when you’re sharing a midfield with N’Golo Kante.
He was restrained in attack, taking only one shot during the game, and almost had a sublime assist to his name in the first half.
Pirouetting out of defence, he brought the ball forward but was fouled halfway inside his own half. Instinctively, he sprung back to his feet, set the ball still and fired the resulting free kick to the edge of the Argentina penalty area where Mbappe was brought down for a free kick, right on the edge of the area.
It was a superb piece of midfield play. Pogba himself took the free kick and got it badly wrong, but this evidence of his passing range shows how important he could be for a side that possesses devastating counter-attacking ability. He wins the ball back well, and his first instinct is always to launch an attack.
France must adapt to Mbappe marking
After the Argentina game, Mbappe will be a marked man. Teams will probably sit six yards deeper, giving France less space in behind than the catastrophic Argentine defence.
They may only get one or two opportunities to set their jet-heeled attackers loose, and the perfect pass is crucial. Pogba has shown he can provide it.
With Didier Deschamps easing the handbrake off his side, Pogba’s ability to transition defence to attack could be crucial. He and Kante are formidable opponents at both ends of the pitch, a pair that no team will relish facing.
He protected the ball when he needed to, his combination of power and poise helping France to retain possession when Argentina threatened their comeback. Only Kante had more touches than him for France. Keeping the pair of them heavily involved should be a priority for Deschamps.
Besides, as the TV cameras showed; even if he were to get injured or suspended, there are at least two more (admittedly Guinean) Pogba's ready to take his place. That could be handy, too.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 15 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.