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He was poor away at Fulham (and was withdrawn at half-time), and found himself playing the next few games at centre-back due to a defensive crisis.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.

Sherwood’s philosophy

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.

Join the conversation

  1. Yet again a very interesting and well thought out discussion piece. Thank you for your considered writing on all things Tottenham. COYS.
    1. Thanks, Ben - appreciate that.
  2. Good point about ball retention, however I would like to point out that Bentaleb is passing sideways, playing the easy ball, nothing passes. That in itself is not a bad thing but knocking Capoue because he is trying to be more expansive isn't right either. I hate stats they are a load of rubbish when it comes to football.
    1. I have to disagree - even this video (which doesn't show every pass) illustrates he takes on several more tricky passes:
    2. The big difference about Bentaleb's passing and anyone in the midfield during AVB's regieme is that a lot of it regardless of direction is one touch. People seem to make alot about forward passing, yet crosses are sideways and cut backs are backward, the only passes that are wasted are ones to a player that just passed it to you and hasn't moved for a return, which we did a lot. After that it's about the speed of moving it from one to another and pulling the other teams formation apart. Formations are for when you are stood next to a chalkboard or haven't got the ball if the other team then pulls it apart you're probably going to concede.
  3. Can't we just download this into the head of :)
    1. Head of...?
  4. This article seems to rally against the extreme views of a minority of fans who may not even exist. I probably share the view of most by saying that a.) I have no issue with Bentaleb playing in certain games over Capoue b.) He may have great passing stats but Bentaleb's defensive game is where his age shows and c.) Clearly fans are going to spit feathers when a really quite good DMF is about to be sold 6 months after arriving. There is no obvious upside to a Capoue sale. If he wants playing time he should earn it here. The rhetoric of this article is a bit too one-sided and Sherwood a focused. 4-4-2 is one debate. Capoue/Bentaleb is another and the merits of selling Capoue is yet another.
    1. Your second point is the crux of the argument, really. Bentaleb isn't good defensively - in fact, he's a poor tackler and I've seen him sent off a few times for mistimed or overly aggressive challenges. Effectively I think many people think Capoue should be playing - but probably at the expense of Soldado rather than Bentaleb. But Sherwood's gamble at playing no DM has worked (to an extent) so far. I agree that I wouldn't sell Capoue (unless he wants to leave), and that 4-4-2 is a separate debate (which I've done to death).
  5. Poor article all around really. 1. It is lazy to characterise Capoue as merely "a destroyer who can pass a bit". He scored 7 goals in 34 Ligue 1 apperances last season for a mid-table Toulouse side. If anything, he's a box-to-box player. 2. The problems against West Ham and Arsenal were primarily down because of a lack of protection in midfield due to playing both Dembélé and Bentaleb who both were positionally poor and caught out on numerous occasions when we lost possession. 3. People are right to question Sherwood's poor excuses of not knowing players after having worked first as the club's technical co-ordinator and being in charge of the first team for over a month. Sherwood's role at Spurs before his appointment of head coach was technical co-ordinator. This role demands knowledge of both the youth setup and the first team setup and all players involved. This to inform and advise the director of football and head coach on talent which could solve deficiencies in certain areas of the first team squad, as well as knowing what qualities actually are present in the first team to be able to make honest comparisons between players when assessing if an academy player could be an asset over an already present first team player. 4. Attitude is something managers only mention when they have no valid arguments for their preference of one player over the other. No one cares about their attitude at the training ground, only their efforts out there on the pitch really matter. 5. You conveniently use Sherwood's quote about Capoue being "not a minute's bother". Yet, you ignore teh completely paradoxial quote: "As long as they're the players I don't want to take us forwards, then I'm happy (to sell them)." Let's get this straight. He needs time to get to learn the players, yet he's already made his mind up who is not to take us forward? Contradiction much? 6. The assumption he is unhappy is baseless and therefore conjecture at best, merely to support your own opinion on this matter. It would be very foolish to sell players at this point in the season without having ready erplacements lined up either in the academy or in the market. Why are we intent to sell players in January whilst it is still very possible that there will be another managerial overhaul in summer? I can't think of any organisation who makes significant changes whilst under the leadership of a trialist CEO. Let's stick by these players for now and see what happens in the remainder of the season. They haven't played enough games to be written off. They haven't been here long enough to be branded flops. Ride it out for now and re-assess the squad in the summer
    1. Excellent response and I agree with you on all accounts. This article was poorly thought through and clearly advocates for Sherwood at the exclusion of considering all the facts/points to the contrary. You picked his pocket quite nicely. Well done sir!
    2. Hello Stephan, hope you're well. I thought we were 'football friends' - poor article? You may disagree, but it can't be that poor if it tempted you to submit such a long reply, right? :) Taking your excellent points in order. Worth pointing out that at least 3 of those goals were from corners. One was a tap-in when he charged forward on the counter and two were finishes where he’d gone box-to-box, as you say - unsure how the other came. But I don’t think he's a typical box-to-box player and he absolutely hasn’t played that role for Spurs, so I don’t think my description is lazy. 2. Fundamentally disagree with this. The midfield and defence were too far apart to make us a compact unit defensively, but given that Sherwood didn’t attempt to change this between Southampton and Arsenal matches, we have to assume that this was a deliberate ploy and that he was taking a calculated gamble in order to allow us to play on the front foot and get bodies forward. Many disagree with this ploy, and there is logic in disagreeing, but that’s just a preference on style. 3. Linguistic issue for me. Of course he “knows” the players, but probably at very much a surface level. This is backed up by his “It’s been the first time I’ve seen four or five of them on the training field” comment from the press conference. And let’s not forget that he’s mostly said “know x better than y” rather than “I don’t know y”, so it’s comparative. Or he could, of course, be being diplomatic and basically saying “Capoue has not impressed me in training”. He knows the players, I’m sure, but he doesn’t yet know them as well as he’d like to. Re your assumptions about his previous role - we have no idea if that was in his remit. My understanding was that he worked with the first team coaches and John McDermott to discuss whether any of the players from U18 upwards were ready to ‘move up’, be it to the Dev squad, the first team squad, or to go out on loan. 3. People are right to question Sherwood’s poor excuses of not knowing players after having worked first as the club’s technical co-ordinator and being in charge of the first team for over a month. 4. That’s absolute nonsense in my opinion. It’s something managers tend to mention if they want one players’ attitude to rub off on another. I.e. if he says Bentaleb trains spectacularly hard, it’s probably trying to hold him up as an example to the Development Squad players (or even the first team players). 5. There was no convenience - I was trying to do Capoue a favour by giving him the benefit of the doubt, as Sherwood has, for balance. You’ve misquoted Sherwood slightly - he said “As long as they’re the right players and the ones I don’t want to take us forward, then I’m happy. You can only go with a certain amount of players and obviously the pressure’s on because it’s a World Cup year for a lot of these players. It’s important that they play, we can’t guarantee that they’re going to get maximum game time.“ I read that as “a number want to go because they want to play every week, and if I don’t see them as first choice then I’d consider letting them go”. Do you not? 6. No - it’s not baseless. It’s based on “obviously the pressure’s on because it’s a World Cup year for a lot of these players.” and the previous comment being about Capoue, so Capoue was clearly in Sherwood’s mind when making that comment. And of course Chadli’ agent has come out about wanting first team football as well, so it’s a clear issue amongst some members of the squad. He’s clearly more open-minded than you’re giving him credit for, hence the “While they’re at the football club they’re all in my plans” comment. I agree, it’d be foolish to sell UNLESS we have unhappy players around the squad, which can effect the morale of the group as a whole. COYS
  6. Are you a Sherwood apologist? Your entire piece exonerates Sherwood of any error with Capoue. The only truths so far are 1-Bentaleb is not as good as is being portrayed by the fickle short term crowd clutching at straws trying to use a few games to predict a season's form 2-Capoue isn't as bad as he is made out to be. You take an international player-shatter his confidence by playing him in defence, lose a game or two, blame him, then at him back in midfield and expect him to be the same bright spark you signed? It is entirely the failure of the manager not being able to restore the confidence of a shell shocked player and to take the easier step of simply replacing him. If Capoue leaves it is because Sherwood has failed in managing him properly-plain and simple.
    1. Correct as well. If Levy and Baldini have any brains they should not let any of the new signing leave. They should also focus on getting a proper LB and let the new manager in the summer (Van Gaal, Pochetino, whoever...) make their choices about the team and the system they want to play. Timmeee is not the right answer I am afraid.
      1. i think you should give sherwood time. i like his style of play. My concern is the treatment of capoue. I see quality and a desire to score and defend. Yes he had bad games but the team was just awful in november.I feel that if anybody should go it would be Dembélé holtby Sigurðsson. I think dembele is a decent player, but he isnt reliable. he chooses when to try. he barely runs back on defense, he has an awful final touch.; lastly his passes are just one dimensional. He could actually get alot of money for him (18-23 million) and maybe purchase mata? Holtby has the signs of quality then signs of b team material. i would say the only one i would may keep is Sigurðsson. He would just be my sub guy. we need a left back and a damn striker... saldado is a bust. we could of got osvaldo for half the price with more desire to score than this bust.
    2. Capoue was only played as a centre half because 3 out of our 4 centre halves were injured. Who else, but Capoue, could have deputised. He has played as a centre half before, in France. Presumably he earns at least £50k per week. For that kind of money he should be prepared to cover at centre half in an emergency situation. Which it was. He's a pro footballer. He's well paid. He's not a delicate flower!!
    3. Not an apologist, no, just don't think he's done anything wrong on this occasion. 1. Bentaleb is better than being portrayed IMO. That's based on watching him 10+ times for U19s/U21s and comparing him with other players at that level, as well as his first team apparances. 2. Capoue is not a bad player at all - it's just that he's not been as good (yet) as the hyperbolic clamour suggests. Capoue's played in defence many times across his career FWIW.
    4. Capoue's ability to play DM and CB was a main part of almost every article in the build up and wake of his signing. It has been touched on here many times that the reason he got showed up so badly deputising as CB when we only had one to choose from was that he was also the only fit DM to choose from as well.
  7. Sherwood emphasises the importance of having players who can pass to a team mate. He seems to forget that the other good teams also have players who pass to team mates.To counter this you need peo[ple who can defend and tackle.
    1. I think that's a fair comment. Ideally players can tackle/intercept AND pass (Carrick).
  8. Excellent article as ever Windy. Thanks.
  9. I have no opinion either way for Capoue and Sherwood. For me, we've seen not enough of either to make a considered judgement. But the bias in this article is extraordinary.
  10. Bring back BAE. Keep Capoue. For the first season ever we are not going to fade away for the last 10 games. We need them all.
  11. Interesting and thoughtful article, Windy. If your analysis of the Capoue situation is right then why did we buy him in the summer? If we are spending £100m on a set of players to play in a particular system only to then ditch the system and start sidelining and/or selling those players after 6 months then we really are going around in circles. And where does this leave other recently purchase players like Lamela and Chadli? Isn't a key advantage of the Director of Football system that if there is a change in Head Coach/Manager then the incoming appointee has to fit in the system that has already been established. I hope we don't sell or buy anyone until the summer when we know who the manager will be next season.
  12. For once (or is it twice) we should follow the example of Chelsea and name Sherwood as the "provisional" coach (Benitez) until he can prove himself.Such proof would include "managing" those players he claims NOT to know. After all that is what any new manager at any new club HAS to do !!!!
  13. Jesus Christ. Already writing off the manager. From where we were under AVB to where we are now I don't think you can fault Sherwood. He has an 18 month contract. That's interim enough. I for one am fed up with the managerial merry-go-round at the Lane. Capoue is a good squad member but I doubt that even he thinks that he should start ahead of Sandro as a defensive midfielder or Paulinho or Eriksen going forward. As for Bentaleb I'd rather have Tom Carroll back at the lane, but Bentaleb hasn't played half bad. As for selling anyone.....have you seen our Injury list??
  14. What has happened to our club, one fiasco after another. I find it astonishing that the football club can buy players and want to sell them in the same season. The tenants down the road are once again falling over themselves at the shambles.
    1. Sherwood doesn't have the final say on who comes and who goes. That's Levy!! Sherwood is not Manager; he's Head Coach. How do we know if Capoue or Holtby are going? It's all just media speculation at the moment. It seems like they want to go. Capoue wants to be playing because of the World Cup. However whether the stay, or go, is Levy's decision, not Sherwood's. Just the same as whether Sherwood is still Spurs manager for the start of next season is entirely Levy's decision. He might have already made up his mind.
  15. Only time will tell if Sherwood is successful, or not. His job could well depend on him achieving 4th place this season. The top 3 places look likely to go to Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal, leaving Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Man Utd scrapping over the 4th spot. I think the odds are against us achieving 4th spot. I don't think either Everton, or us, have a World Class player, whereas Liverpool definitely have one (Suarez) and Man Utd arguably have 2 (Rooney and Van Persie, if fit)
    1. Sandro is world Class. Paulinho is world class, Soldado is world Class and from what Ihave seen so far of Chiriches he's also world class. The diference is that they've had one poor manager and less than a season to be a team. Look how ordinary Liverpool were last season.
      1. ..... sandro barely plays... he is always injured.... how can you claim paulinho is world class or saldado they just got here.Out of the two paulinho could be in a year or two... They are not even close. look at what man city bought with 100m. those players are world class. but thats what happens when you just buy up decent players. they are just decent.
  16. I don't feel Bentaleb will play when Paulinho is fit. Bentaleb is one for the future. However young players need to be given a chance to prove themselves. It looks like he's got a good future. He's got a good shot on him.
  17. Levy and Baldini have signed seven players not one has been a success,and we still try to play a high line with a centre half who cannot run.We play 442 with two forwards one of which looks unlikely to score again this season.Sadly we have spent 110m and are now overloaded in midfield and short of a top class forward and centre half,Hopefully Tim is learning quickly and gets going to the Arsenal and playing a system where you are one short in midfield is naïve to say the least. Same old Spurs nothing simple
    1. Wht are you talking about?Chiriches, Paulinho have been class since their arrival and Eriksen is coming good. Soldado has looked much happier with Ade up front with him. The only two of the signings that I'm not sure of is Capoue and Chadli. I believe that Lamela will come good he just needs to get some game time and get used to his surroundings.
  18. ..... sandro barely plays... he is always injured.... how can you claim paulinho is world class or saldado they just got here.Out of the two paulinho could be in a year or two... They are not even close. look at what man city bought with 100m. those players are world class. but thats what happens when you just buy up decent players. they are just decent.
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