World Cup 2018 Star Wars

How football's stars are positioning themselves post World Cup 2018

The World Cup is over and the stacked French squad managed to pull off a comprehensive victory, although they had to weather an impressive first half performance from Croatia. Aided by a contentious VAR awarded penalty and a pretty suspect free kick given for a challenge on Antoine Griezmann, France ended the half with two goals from a solitary shot on target.

After the break the French looked much more impressive as Croatia began to fatigue and chase the game. Two goals from the young stars of the side in Pogba and the Next Big Thing Kylian Mbappé made it a convincing win for the young French team. For Pogba you could tell it was a redemption of sorts after receiving a lot of criticism for his performances in a Manchester United shirt and for Mbappé you knew that you were watching his ascension to the very elite of the game.

The BBC coverage showed clips of a teenage Pele in 1958 and compared the two, all the while remarking that even being able to do so was quite unprecedented. The sheer fear he struck into the Croatian team was reminiscent of the Brazilian Ronaldo and he certainly possesses similar pace and power to El Fenomeno.

I’m here to talk about the Star System, who’s up and who’s down in the battle for individual football supremacy. First up are the ageing dominant stars of the past decade in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

One man can't do it all

The tournament proved no longer can one man carry a mediocre team. I won’t claim to have Pep powers of insight but it struck me that it is now far more difficult to just out talent an opposition. World Cup shocks have always been a part of the thrill of watching but now you can see that even the more limited teams are well conditioned and intelligently coached, often set up to frustrate the more able teams and play for certain results or penalties. Teams are less able to rely on an individual to overcome a well drilled and motivated side.

Serena Williams says that every player that plays her ups their game, forcing her to greatness. This performance lift certainly applies at a World Cup where guys from teams such as Iran or the host nation Russia will never be more motivated. For the big teams these encounters are almost a complete lose-lose; you're expected to put the minnows away so victory is largely met with indifference whereas defeat is met with absolute and usually mocking disbelief. 

Messi in particular looked frustrated and seemed let down by a lack of an actual plan beyond just giving him the ball while being saddled with a porous midfield and vulnerable defence behind him.

Ronaldo has subsequently agreed to join Juventus, bringing an end to an era at Madrid where he has won 4 European Cups, broken their all time goalscoring record and been honoured with 5 Ballon d’Ors. It’s a seismic transfer of power and the moving of the CR7 brand, the impact of which has already been felt by Juventus in terms of their global profile with 520,000 Ronaldo shirts sold on the first day they were available. 

The move seems like a can't lose for Ronaldo. He is still physically awesome but is entering the latter years of his career. Juventus are absolutely dominant in Italy but have been unable to convert this into recent Champions League success. Their domestic dominance will allow Ronaldo to save himself for the biggest games, give the young players a leader and example to follow and will almost certainly furnish CR7 with at least a Serie A title.

Juve are hoping Ronaldo will push them over the edge and make them continental kings as well as a truly global brand. He's arguably already achieved one of these goals without even setting foot on a pitch. For a late career move this one seems almost risk free while burnishing the CR7 legacy as he conquers another country. This could be a competitive and commercial win for both parties.

Messi is Messi

Messi goes back to Barcelona where he has signed a new contract and seen his great rival depart for another competition. His personal performance has not declined and Barcelona are probably more dependent on him than ever with the retirement of Iniesta and their expensive new signings yet to really bed in . He has been characteristically quiet in terms of public pronouncements but will continue to perform; the next chapter of his story really depends on the subsequent transfer activity of Real Madrid.

Although it's unlikely that Messi will win a World Cup now, his position in the game is almost unassailable due to his feats for Barcelona. He won player of the tournament at Brazil 2014 and dragged Argentina through qualification this time around. I'm not interested in any CR7 vs Messi arguments; their lack of World Cup success doesn't necessarily harm their legacies in my view.

Neymar and Turning Heel

I've already written about Neymar's heel turn to become the man everyone loves to hate. He appears to have embraced his own dislikability in order to set himself up as an opposing figure to the other stars of the game. Where he once deferred to Messi at Barcelona he now seeks to portray himself as a worthy opponent. This looks like it is paving the way for a move to Real Madrid to become the latest Galactico, giving La Liga a new rivalry as he and Messi go toe to toe for Spanish supremacy.

I believe that this is quite a smart move from Neymar - Madrid inspire respect rather than admiration and have just moved on an unbelievable player and polarising fan figure in Ronaldo while one of the game's great villains in Sergio Ramos lifts Champions League trophies year after year. Neymar would become the face of one of the biggest franchises in world sport while increasing his own already enormous brand. His own virtuosity and egotistical image actually meshes better with Madrid's brand of star worship than it ever would at Messi's Barcelona.

Moving directly from Barcelona to Madrid is basically impossible so his stopover in PSG has served its purpose from his perspective. The only problem is whether PSG would allow him to move on as money is absolutely no object to them. The vague threat of FFP sanctions would provide a convenient excuse and they have the crutch that is the signing of hometown hero Kylian Mbappé to fall back on. This is genuinely something that could happen and would serve everyone from a storytelling perspective.

France based on defence

Contradicting the Star System or Galactico approach, French victory was largely based on a strong defence. The selection of 4 centre backs rather than including more attacking minded fullbacks as well as having the indefatigable N’Golo Kante gave the front players some more license to express themselves. Pogba and Matuidi played in a disciplined manner as well although the former was granted license to play some ambitious passes which resulted in goals and chances created, none more important than the one leading up his goal in the final.

It has to be said that the French strength in depth was phenomenal and players of the quality of Benzema, Coman and Martial were not required at all for the tournament.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the French setup was quite similar to the one which Pogba flourished in at Juventus. After an underwhelming showing from the speedy forward line of Dembele, Griezmann and Mbappé in the first game, Giroud was added as an outlet. Even if his goalscoring was subpar, he acts as a target for long balls and a useful wall to bounce passes off of. Griezmann was often seen back in defensive positions and the one guy with real license to do as he pleased was Mbappé who’s pace meant that any break immediately looked dangerous.

The Rehabilitation of Paul Pogba

Pogba has been oft derided for being the archetypal millennial footballer, looking for the highlight play to go with his oft highlighted hair. He had a tumultuous year where he began to be left out for Scott McTominay and had to endure criticism from his manager as well as many former players and pundits around the game, saying himself that 'I went from the biggest transfer in the world to the most criticised player in the world.' 

Pogba is portrayed, despite his success, as a wasted talent, more interested in the trappings of sporting stardom than with achievement.

I really think criticism of him is a bit unfair. Pogba has proven his ability at the highest levels of the game, winning 4 titles with Juventus and now scoring in the showpiece event. Even Roy Keane said ‘he can do what he likes with his hair now’ after another disciplined yet creative showing in the final and the onus is now firmly on Jose Mourinho to get the best out of him. If he doesn’t then his performances at United will surely be reframed as those of a man whom the manager is struggling to extract the maximum from. France's defensive setup proves that it is not purely a style of play issue.

Pogba has always been very marketable, particularly to younger fans of the game. He is very active on social media and showcases a larger than life personality and a fun loving attitude. Manchester United were happy to lean in to this with the announcements surrounding his return to Old Trafford with #PogBack so it seems contradictory to castigate him for his proclivities when his marketability was one of the reasons that he was signed.

His goal celebrations in the final were clearly aimed at some of his erstwhile critics and he has clearly won over the majority of them with his tournament win. His CV is pretty much unimpeachable and he is still a relatively young player at 26????

His teammate Adil Rami told the press that:

“I can tell you that Paul Pogba, I don’t know how and I don’t know from where, has become a leader. He proved it to us. He showed it. He’s the one that showed the way. He was the strong man of the France team.”

Pogba spent the tournament proving his doubters wrong, illuminating the field with his play and most importantly, winning the trophy with his team. The fact that it feels like he can push on is testament to his talent.


The Emergence of Mbappé

The wildcard in all this is Kylian Mbappé. His rise has been remarkable and PSG are lucky to have arranged his transfer last year. When it was agreed it did appear to be mostly based on potential as his body of work was so limited but now even the most cynical observer would have to agree that he is one of the greatest talents in the game. He gives off the right demeanour and seems to have assimilated well into some high performance environments with a lot of big charcters. He is fearless on the ball and although blessed with explosiveness, his calmness and decision making have been remarked upon by many of the commentators.

He's also just won the World Cup. 

The interesting thing with Mbappé is that he is the ideal figurehead for the PSG project. Neymar is bigger than the club and has, as discussed, gone about making himself incredibly dislikable. Florentino Perez has chased him for years and would love to make him the new Galactico around which Real Madrid could be based. This would suit his narrative, attempting to dethrone Messi as the King of Spain and achieving individual apotheosis by presenting an incontrovertible case for the Ballon D'Or by doing so.

It would be so ironic if Neymar's quest for individual honours was to be thwarted by the French prodigy. Mbappé is in the ascendant and seems to regard playing for PSG as an actual honour while Neymar clearly has eyes for elsewhere. PSG should build their future around the native star, one who appears far more prepared to lead while being a part of the team, not apart from it.

These are transitional times for the superstars of the game who will now take some well-earned rest before the new season. It'll be fascinating to see who emerges triumphant in the next season of football's Star Wars.