It is not the same. It is never the same when Paul Pogba is not there. Everyone in the France camp will tell you.
After 16 months away from the French national team because of his long injury, because of the coronavirus pandemic, and because he contracted COVID-19 himself in September, the Manchester United midfielder is back this month; and, boy, you can see the difference, hear the difference, and feel the difference. It had been too long, and both Pogba and France really needed a reunion.
La Pioche — “The pickaxe,” as Pogba is known after the nickname was given to him by Juventus fans — is definitely the boss in the France squad. He is the leader, the joker, the guide, but also both a captain and a soldier who leads by example. When he is not there, there is a hole that no one can really fill. When he is there, as for the past 10 days, there is a very special energy and atmosphere within the team.
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Pogba is a breath of fresh air for France; and the flip side is also very true, as France has always been a breath of fresh air for Pogba when things are not great with his club.
At the heart of his issues with Jose Mourinho, returning home in March 2018 for the games against Colombia and Russia was a massive boost. After seeing his friends again, after a long chat with Didier Deschamps, Pogba returned to England with a more positive mentality and the target to finish the season on a high — which he did. He won his place in the United’s starting XI, played well, and then was instrumental in Les Bleus’ World Cup triumph in Russia that summer.
This time, it is the poor start of the season by United and the critics around his level, especially in the humiliating 6-1 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur that he wanted to put behind him.
So he got his room back at Clairefontaine; Eduardo Camavinga borrowed it in September, but the boss got it back. It is the biggest room, and every evening it is full of people to listen to music, play video games, and to discuss anything and everything.
Pogba also took back his place in the dressing room next to … Antoine Griezmann.
The pair have picked up their bromance where they left it 16 months before. They have spent so much time together it’s unreal. Pogba travelled to Croatia next to Kurt Zouma on the plane on Tuesday — so they could play Ludo — but the rest of the time he is with Grizou.
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Pogba was the best player on the pitch in the second half of the goalless draw with Portugal on Sunday, when Deschamps was delighted to see him in that kind of form.
The head coach knows how tough the past year or so has been for the midfielder. He often phoned Pogba during the injury; he watched the player’s disappointing start to the season with United, and Pogba struggling at times; he heard the critics. Maybe that’s why Deschamps was even closer to Pogba during this international window. “DD” wanted “PP” to really feel at home, and to use the 10 days to kick-start his season.
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“I thought he was good against Portugal, even better in the second half, in regards of his rhythm, his size,” Deschamps said after the game.
“I got a good Paul back. He is not always here to score or give assists. He has a big activity, and technically he was good, too.”
Pogba was certainly happy with his performance, especially after the break, as Deschamps pointed out.
The midfielder has worked hard during this international break to get sharper and fitter for when he returns to Manchester. He played a lot, with three games in seven days: 30 minutes in the 7-1 victory against Ukraine; 90 minutes three days later against Portugal; and he will start again in the UEFA Nations League fixture against Croatia in Zagreb on Wednesday, when he will earn his 72nd cap at just 27. He is on course to overtake Lilian Thuram as the most capped France player; Thuram won 142 caps, but he had only 46 at Pogba’s age.
When Pogba heads back to Manchester on Thursday, United will get a refreshed and reenergised player — which is exactly the impact the club had hoped to see from his return to France.
The club, meanwhile, can’t be annoyed with Pogba for mentioning (again) that his dream is to play one day for Real Madrid.
First, he is waiting for a sign from Ed Woodward and the club; he loves United, Old Trafford, and his life in Manchester.
But his line on Zinedine Zidane and Madrid is a good sign as well, for it is when he is happy that he gives it the best answers. And the best performances.
United will hope he is happy, ready and eager to go against Newcastle United on Saturday.