At one point in the first half in Munich, as Paul Pogba glided around the pitch pinging and flicking and drifting the ball into strange, unexpected spaces, freezing the action around him with a touch, Antonio Rüdiger threw his arms around his chest, leant closer and seemed to take a nibble of Pogba’s shoulder.
Maybe it was just a sniff or a lick. And really, you sympathised with Rüdiger. In moments like these Pogba does seem to be some more-ish, liquid footballing substance. It was quite delicious.
In those opening 45 minutes Pogba moved around the pitch like a champion in a team of champions. And over the course of this 1-0 victory France were good in the way France are good, reeling off another sleek, unruffled tournament performance against a Germany team that was almost always held at arm’s length.
In the middle of this Pogba was the free element, the grace note, and no doubt a source of frustration for some who will wonder, a little unfairly, how a player this brilliant isn’t this brilliant all the time, instead of saving it for stages like these.
A meeting of France and Germany is one of Europe’s clásicos, a collision of grand old storied aristocrats. It is a stirring spectacle just taking in the colours, the anthems, the staging, the feeling of the sporting heartlands in play. France versus Germany doesn’t always have to be thrilling or back and forth. It just is.
Germany started in a back three, with Joshua Kimmich employed in the Andy Robertson role as a kind of right-sided roaming creative hub. The France team were all silk and steel. The front three, Griezmann‑Benzema‑Mbappé, have a combined 98 goals this season which, for all the talk of chemistry, feuds, wrongs of the past, really is a lot of goals.
Pogba made the only goal of the game. Sometimes he just stops, looks up and produces these passes – odd, improvised, brilliantly creative little moments of craft where suddenly his foot becomes a 17-piece Allen key set, selecting the right toggle and skimming the ball just over the German back line into the path of Lucas Hernandez. He pinged the ball back across, where Mats Hummels could only thump it clumsily into his own net, his confusion owing something to the pass, which left the white shirts wheeling around, surprised to find this note of obscure geometry in the middle of all that tension.
A bit later Pogba went snapping in at Toni Kroos in the centre circle, taking the ball and also some part of Kroos. With half an hour gone there was a bravura, demoralising back‑heel flick in a tight spot that drew a roar from the stands.
Five minutes before half-time Pogba reeled off another jaw‑dropping diagonal, a flat, hard, dipping thing to pick out Karim Benzema’s run. And really, Pogba did a bit of everything in that spell, ticking off every metric – tackles, headers, dribbles, interceptions – although it was his five long diagonal passes that seemed to decide the flow, to carve a shape out of the action around him.
Germany got closer to Pogba in the second half. Clearly this had been the chat at the break. Take those spaces away, kill those passes at source. And Pogba did start to look a little frazzled at times. This is his vice. Another player, reading the flow, might have chosen to move the ball on, to allow Germany to waste two players on him to make space elsewhere. Pogba kept on being Pogba. For 20 minutes or so he got tangled up in the game.
And Germany had their chances. Thomas Müller was back, starting in the Müller role, a kind of roving, diffuse midfielder without portfolio. He still doesn’t really look like a footballer, resembling instead a junior history professor on an evening jog. But he found space here, if not incision.
And steadily the France midfield reasserted itself. It is often said that it reflects badly on Pogba that he looks so dizzyingly good in this team, with Adrien Rabiot next to him and N’Golo Kanté behind (and alongside, and in front); that he only plays at his best when he’s surrounded by giants, as opposed to, say, Scott McTominay and Fred.
Well, yeah. What, exactly, are we expecting here? On one hand this is just the way some footballers are. Not everyone has the kind of presence that paints itself the same across every surface. Pogba’s ceiling is high, but his skills are also reliant on space and movement and a little freedom around him. Lots of very good players have been like this. People are like this. We all thrive in the strongest light, with the best soil.
This might have been more than 1-0. Kylian Mbappé and Benzema had a goal each disallowed for offside. Toward the end there was an X-rated moment as Hummels was isolated – he was 30 yards away – with Mbappé, and left moonwalking helplessly back while this raptor devoured the ground between them. Hummels somehow got the man and ball and this was deemed OK. But it was a troubling moment, a kind of memento mori. This is what regular humanity, us, normal physical spring and twang looks like, illuminated on this grand stage. Et in Arcadia ego.
Otherwise France did what they do so well, resting on the ball, funnelling possession around, always in command of the angles and the spaces, drawing the strength from German legs, making them chase and lunge and turn. They remain, quite clearly, the team to beat.