The French national team arrived in Russia yesterday, with the weight of expectation on their shoulders.
Perhaps the most talented squad to compete in the World Cup, there’s quality in abundance at Didier Deschamps’ disposal, and a key member of the side remains the former world record signing Paul Pogba.
Since an £89 million move to Manchester United in 2016, Pogba’s performances have been the subject of intense scrutiny, with many declaring the 25-year-old unable to repeat the level he produced whilst playing for Juventus.
You can’t trust him as a central midfielder and, ultimately, that’s how Deschamps will see it. He could use Pogba as an impact substitute. – Graeme Souness.
Graeme Souness, for example, went as far as saying the Frenchman couldn’t be “trusted” in midfield, calling for Deschamps to confine him to a role as an “impact substitute.”
Whilst this perspective is typically disregarded as nonsensically blasphemous, RealSport look at whether there’s any logic behind Souness’ assertion.
Suited for counter-attacking
The French are the best nation in Group C -drawn alongside Peru, Denmark and Australia- and are expected to take the ‘active’ role in their three group games, dominating possession and playing on the front foot.
However, Deschamps’ side are particularly well-suited to ceding possession and playing counter-attacking football. This is because of the threatening prospect of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele on the flanks, offering speed, trickery and a potent goal threat.
For example, the duo netted 14 goals, assisted 13, created 65 chances and completed 97 take-ons between them.
France also boast a ball-winning machine in N’Golo Kante in midfield, who has forged a reputation as a world class midfield destroyer through his interceptions (82) and tackles (75). Both of these numbers exceed that of Pogba, whilst the Chelsea midfielder also had a better pass accuracy (89%) and created two more chances.
With Pogba starting, Deschamps typically deploys a 4-3-3 formation, with Griezmann leading the line, flanked by Mbappe and Dembele and supported by a midfield three of Pogba, Kante and one of Steven N’Zonzi, Corentin Tolisso or Blaise Matuidi.
Dropping Pogba, therefore, allows Deschamps to revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
With Mbappe and Dembele sitting slightly deeper than in a 4-3-3, they have the speed to transition quickly into a more advanced position on the break.
A 4-2-3-1, moreover, sets Griezmann as the focal point of the side in a number ten role, getting him on the ball more often and reducing the marginalisation that occurs from a lone striker’s role.
Counter-attacking football, furthermore, is most effective with a target man leading the line as someone able to control long balls and create second-ball opportunities to be won by the three behind him in support.
Dropping Pogba, therefore, gives Olivier Giroud a chance to come into the side. He’s France’s fourth-highest all-time goalscorer and a very capable target man. Giroud, for example, won an average of three aerial duels per game for Chelsea.
Pogba vs Tolisso
The beauty of N’Golo Kante is that he can effectively perform the role of two defensive midfielders, meaning a more creative option can be selected alongside him in a two-man double pivot.
It’s a known fact that Pogba -one of the world’s most enigmatic players- functions best in a three-man midfield and struggles in a double pivot, hence Corentin Tolisso’s inclusion.
Whilst it’s important to have speedy wingers with a goal threat and a target man to aid in the quick transition from defence to attack, it’s worthless without a central midfielder boasting an impressive range of passing, able to pick them out with long passes.
Kante is certainly capable of this, but he’ll have a lot of defensive slack on his plate in this system.
Tolisso, though, completed 3.6 long balls per game in the Bundesliga and completed 90% of his passes (Pogba 85%), with a longer average length (17.95m) than Pogba (16.67m).
Pogba, additionally, was dispossessed more frequently per game (1.5) than Tolisso (0.5) and recorded more incidents of poor control per game (2.1) than his compatriot (0.5).
With a similar, but more accurate, passing range and better ability to retain the ball under pressure, Tolisso is perhaps the more trustworthy midfield option for counter-attacking football, certainly in a two-man pivot.
Therefore, dropping Pogba encourages Deschamps to use a 4-2-3-1 formation, one more suited to counter-attacking football, a style of play that better fits France’s personnel.
However, Deschamps could yet use a 4-3-3 formation without Pogba, utilising Kante as the single pivot at the base of midfield -or more advanced with Steven N’Zonzi or Blaise Matuidi holding- with Tolisso occupying Pogba’s usual position.
Taking a page out of Luis Enrique’s book whilst he managed Barcelona, France could bypass the midfield altogether, focussing on quick transitions from back to front, with long balls from defence into a front three of Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele, allowing the trio to work their magic with freedom in the final third.
Ultimately, Pogba isn’t that much of a liability that he deserves to dropped entirely, and he offers more to the side than he would take away if starting, but the fact of the matter is that there are ways Deschamps can avoid the midfielder if so desired.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Paul Pogba and France in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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