Euro 2020 will definitely go down as one of the best international tournaments of all time in living memory, as is the quality and excitement it displayed.
Arguably the best game of the competition so far, and perhaps one of the best, was Switzerland’s shock loss to world champions France, which was settled on penalties after finishing 3-3 in 120 minutes of non-stop, mind-blowing drama.
Les Bleus’ best performer of the night was without a doubt Paul Pogba, who was arguably the frontrunner for the Player of the Tournament award before his side were simply knocked out.
Even though it was a disastrous night for France, Pogba’s distribution was a sight to behold.
The Manchester United midfielder’s precision pass ripped through the Swiss defense throughout the night, completing more passes (73) than any of his team-mates and with the third-best success rate (91 per cent).
But it was the technique and range of passes that captivated viewers more than their sheer numbers. In the 21st minute he sent a pass 40 yards from above to put Kylian Mbappe in a great position to score – with one touch.
In the 56th minute he found the PSG striker again, but this time he raced to the edge of the area, sucking in the entire defense before releasing his team-mate inside the box for a golden opportunity.
In extra time, Pogba found Mbappé again with a beautiful through ball that crippled five Swiss defenders, but the striker missed once again.
The 28 year old player piece de resistance, though, it came at the end of a wild 20-minute period for France in which they scored three goals. He picked up the rebound from about 20 yards before unleashing a strike rocket into the top right corner of Yann Sommer’s net. It was an incredible way to get his first international goal since the 2018 World Cup final.
That was on everyone’s mind, as there was definitely no turning back for Switzerland with 15 minutes remaining, but Hasan Seferovic scored his second headed goal of the game not long after.
The decisive moment came in the last seconds of normal time, as Pogba received the ball in midfield but was robbed by Christian Fassnacht, who had come off the bench ten minutes earlier. From there Granit Xhaka played it on to Mario Gavranovic, who skinned Presnel Kimpembe before an excellent finish past Hugo Lloris.
From then on it felt like fate was on the Swiss side, especially when Kingsley Coman’s raspy shot could only hit the crossbar in the final moments of a classic encounter.
What followed also felt inevitable, to the point that Pogba’s superb penalty and Mbappe’s miss would never be enough to spare the United man the wrath of armchair criticism online and in the pundits room.
He was allegedly denounced on ITV, with former United general Roy Keane leading the chorus.
“I would have looked at the goals they conceded in injury time, where he was really sloppy in midfield. That’s the part I’m going to criticize,” said the Irishman.
“It looked harsh because he did some brilliant things tonight. No doubt Paul’s qualities, but just other things, his maturity… he lacks discipline. [to play in a double pivot].
“Even tonight, he frustrates you. For all the brilliant qualities going forward, I still think he lacks discipline in defence. That’s the key. [to go to the next level].
“The top players do it week in week out. Paul didn’t do that.”
Even Pogba’s most ardent supporters can’t deny that his time at United has not been one of disappointment, with the midfielder failing to reach the level Keane has spoken of. But it’s hard to see where Keane is coming from when he talks about “maturity” when this is not a long-range issue in the French game.
That begs the question: why is it always like this when it comes to Pogba? Why does one mistake always have to turn into a lengthy discussion about his character?
Patrick Vieira chimed in in support of Keane, arguing Pogba needed a midfield partner like the Irishman to get the best out of him.
“Obviously it’s frustrating because he can give more than what he gives to the team.”
It was a strange conclusion considering how much Pogba had given that night, in one of the best individual appearances in a France shirt since Zinedine Zidane against Brazil at the 2006 World Cup.
Lack of concentration and too much possession are parts of his game that require supervision. It has cost United on occasion and it has cost France this week. But moments like that need to be kept in perspective and not used as convenient ammunition as part of an agenda against a player.
Criticism of Pogba can be accepted in good faith if there is an actual analysis of what goes into building a goal, rather than a reductive take that leaves zero margin for error or the benefit of the doubt.
When Pogba received the ball from Karim Benzema in midfield, there were two Swiss players right in front of him. For some reason, the French forward three were all pushed onto the pitch, despite maintaining a slim lead, and were not available for passes.
Barely a second after Pogba had the ball, Fassnacht came in from his blind side to steal it and pass it to Xhaka. At this point France were not in immediate danger, but their midfield really opened up. With one pass, the Arsenal midfielder took N’Golo Kante out of the game and set up Gavranovic.
Even after sitting under Kimpembe, it wasn’t an easy chance for the Dinamo Zagreb forward, but he fired low and hard into the bottom left corner of the net from inside the box. A magnificent goal to mark a beautiful night for Switzerland, but it is a system failure from France, of which Pogba’s deprivation is only one part.
Of course, if Mbappe completes just one of Pogba’s many brilliant chances, or scores the decisive penalty in the shootout, then this conversation becomes irrelevant.
Do you think the criticism of Pogba is fair or is he a comfortable scapegoat? Share your opinion in the comments.
It’s a match that should go unnoticed for France when comparing the talent levels between the two sides, but Didier Deschamps made it unnecessarily complicated for his team with his team selection and substitutions.
When all is said and done at Euro 2020, Pogba should come out of this tournament with his reputation on the rise. But it just goes to show, it will always be the same story as long as he is involved in English football. We have to wonder what it takes to please those who doubt.