The overzealous defence of Étienne Capoue
In the midst of many a meltdown among the Spurs fans on Twitter this week, Head Coach Tim Sherwood has been accused of using defensive midfielder Étienne Capoue as a pawn in an ongoing battle with the club’s Technical Director, Franco Baldini, who was responsible for his signing.
In fact, I would suggest that Sherwood’s use of Bentaleb over Capoue has been relatively logical and that, in fact, many fans are doing what they’re accusing Sherwood of – using Étienne Capoue as a pawn – against Sherwood himself.
Étienne Capoue – the story so far
Capoue has only made eleven appearances so far (two as a substitute) due to an injury picked up in his third match. His debut off the bench at Crystal Palace was tidy and promising, he was excellent in the next match against Swansea and then went off injured against Arsenal. He was deemed to be fit again two months later, and understandably looked a little rusty in his comeback versus Sheriff.
He was poor away at Fulham (and was withdrawn at half-time), and found himself playing the next few games at centre-back due to a defensive crisis. This is not a position that is unfamiliar to him, though, and he played well against Sunderland, where he handled Altidore and Fletcher with aplomb, and followed this showing up with a decent display (albeit mostly untested) vs Anzhi.
The car crash at home to Liverpool clearly cannot be pinned entirely on him, but he looked sluggish and unfit, lacking sharpness and energy. He was arguably partially at fault for the goals West Ham scored in the League Cup match.
He returned to the centre of midfield against Manchester United, and did some useful defensive work – making two tackles, two interceptions, and four clearances in the 64 minutes that he lasted. He struggled to pass the ball, though, and in fact came away with just a 55% pass completion – the lowest of any outfield player by 10%. As a comparison, his replacement, Bentaleb, completed 91% of his passes. If you keep giving the ball away, of course you’re going to need to win it back. Essentially, it could be argued that he did more harm than good, and that bringing on Bentaleb to try to keep the ball better was a relatively logical move.
Which leads us on nicely to Tim Sherwood’s philosophy thus far. In this article I discussed why Sherwood might be using a 4-4-2 – or, at least, a formation with two forwards. It’s almost as if he’s trying to teach the players to get into the box again – to push more bodies forward into the attacking third in general, and to be more positive in their approach play.
He has spoken repeatedly in press conferences about the importance of ball retention:
24th Dec: “If you can’t pass the ball to your own team-mates then you have a serious problem because you are going to have to keep on defending.”
4th Jan: “It’s about passing the ball to your own team and keeping hold of it.”
Presumably this is the main reason that he has picked Bentaleb over Capoue, rightly or wrongly. Bentaleb’s pass completion is 7% better than Capoue’s on average across the season so far and is, in fact, the best of our entire squad.
Of course, they are not truly comparable players; Capoue is a destroyer who can pass a bit, and Bentaleb is an elegant play-maker who wants to get on the ball and pass and move, be it from a deep-lying position, or as a number 10.
But, regardless, fans are holding them up for direct comparison because Bentaleb has apparently been picked ahead of him – “He’s an international, how’s he behind a 19 year old?”, “It’s an insult to Capoue.”, “Sherwood is humiliating him”. My answer would be to say that if he’s that good, he’ll have no problem proving to Sherwood that he is better than Bentaleb. Clearly he hasn’t done that in training just yet.
Sherwood has attempted to explain the appearance of Bentaleb at Capoue’s expense:
“He realises that I’ve used Nabil Bentaleb in front of him – not only him but Lewis Holtby and a few other players in the midfield area – because I knew the young boy and I trusted him.
Etienne has played, he played at Old Trafford, and he’s been asked to play in reserve games to keep up his fitness, along with other players.
The fact is I’m still getting to know some of these new players and I know the other ones better.”
He added that he as he gets to know the newer players, though, he’s getting “attached” to some of them.
The response to this from some has been “HOW CAN HE NOT KNOW CAPOUE? HE WAS ON THE TRANSFER COMMITTEE”. In truth, we don’t know whether Sherwood had any input to the Capoue signing – it would be interesting to know, though. And as for not knowing the player, I don’t think we can take this literally.
Our new Head Coach is not the most articulate (to say the least), but my interpretation of this is that he doesn’t know Capoue well enough to know that he can do the job he wants his central midfielders to do as well as Bentaleb. Is that so wrong? He’s also said that Bentaleb trains ‘as if every day is his last’, so he clearly rates his attitude too.
Given Sherwood’s talked about ball retention, it makes sense to me that he’s been picking the two who complete the highest proportion of their passes. Mousa Dembele doesn’t pass the ball forward particularly well but he has the second best pass completion in the squad (after Bentaleb) across the season, whereas Capoue has the tenth best.
What I can understand fans questioning is the system Sherwood’s using – i.e. playing with no dedicated holding player, and with two strikers. But we’ve won four out of five in the league, were rather unlucky in the League Cup against West Ham, and lost in the FA Cup to the best team in England so far this season. And of course, ironically, the only times we’ve been heavily beaten this season have been when we’ve had three in midfield:
West Ham: Dembele, Paulinho, Eriksen
Liverpool: Dembele, Sandro (Holtby), Paulinho
City: Sandro, Paulinho, Holtby
I absolutely see the need for our midfield and defence to be closer together and be more compact (and I discussed this in my recent article for FourFourTwo), but whilst we try to get our strikers into some kind of form, I can understand Sherwood taking this calculated gamble as it allows us to get more bodies forward. And, so far, it’s worked (results-wise).
Capoue to leave?
As rumours broke this week of Napoli’s interest in Capoue, many fans lost the plot. Not only had Sherwood ‘insulted’ him, by leaving him out at the expense of a rookie, but he has now ‘forced him out of the club’. It must surely be because he was AVB’s man, and Sherwood wants to stamp his authority. Or because he has a vendetta against Baldini, and wants rid of his signings. These suggestions have genuinely been used to explain the link.
Sherwood clarified in his pre-Swansea press conference that he would be very happy to not let any players leave in the transfer window, and talked up his relationship with Capoue:
“All I can say with regards to Etienne Capoue is that he’s never caused me a minute’s problem here. We have a good relationship.”
He hinted that the only reason that players would leave is because of the additional pressure that the World Cup brings – they want first team football; they want to be in the spotlight every week, so that their international managers are able to watch them. Of course, that changes things somewhat.
So if Capoue wants to go, Capoue wants to go – but Sherwood hasn’t deliberately sidelined him to make a point (which would be entirely self-destructive), and he’s not being forced out the club. That said, there’s little point in keeping unhappy players.