After interest from Napoli and Tim Sherwood’s dislike for holding midfielders, Etienne Capoue didn’t look to have a big future at the Lane.
The Frenchman had played just 160 minutes in the Premier League since the new coach took charge in a stop-start season that has been interrupted by injury.
Wednesday night on Tyneside, the biggest surprise was to see Capoue’s name on the team sheet. He hadn’t started since our trip to Old Trafford and doesn’t fit the box-to-box mould of midfielder that Tim Sherwood craves.
We’d seen the new boss try to cram three such players in to the line-up against Everton. Nabil Bentaleb, Paulinho and Moussa Dembele all got the nod and the Toffees controlled possession and large parts of the game. Support was also lacking for Emmanuel Adebayor, the player whom their movement and energy was supposed to help.
Against Newcastle it was a surprise to see Sherwood keep all three given how wrong the experiment had gone against Everton.
Adding a holding player in Etienne Capoue though had the stabilising effect our midfield required. It allowed all three box-to-box players to concentrate on bursting forward to aid and support Adebayor, whilst also having the energy to get back when possession was lost.
On the ball
Etienne Capoue was at the centre of the action; sitting in front of and screening his back four. He touched the ball more times than any other player on the pitch and became a distribution hub. The defence could move the ball out through him, whilst the attackers could lay the ball back to him as he offered an out ball if they were under pressure.
In possession, his passing was to move the ball out square to the left where we had a full back paired with a winger who was staying wide. To the right he moved it much more forward on the vertical to where we had a player moving inside (Dembele) and a full back overlapping (Walker).
When he tried to move the ball aggressively forward over distance, something we know that he can do from when Etienne Capoue signed for Spurs, he often failed to find his target. These passes (in red) were in the first half where the game was much more stretched, compared to when we were playing on the counter after the interval. Capoue also looked a touch off the pace to start the game, but progressively grew in to it.
Etienne Capoue grows in to the game
The pace of the match, which was very up-tempo anyway, did seem a bit too fast for Etienne Capoue to start out. He hasn’t played that often in the Premier League, just 580 minutes or the equivalent of 6 full matches this season, 2 of which were spent at centre back.
As a result everything seemed to be happening a bit too quickly for him. Two of his three fouls in the match were committed in the first 11 minutes, as he took time to get to grips with the game. However, as the contest wore on, Capoue adjusted and we started to gain a greater control on proceedings, allowing us to move up the field.
He intercepted the ball just twice in the first half, both on the edge of our box. After the interval, he progressively moved forward and so did we as a team, as he picked off seven passes much higher up. This allowed us, and especially our three box-to-box midfielders, to get forward much quicker and from more advanced positions.
After the interval he was even spotted making a lung-bursting run up the right, taking on Newcastle players. Capoue is more than just a holding midfielder in the Makelele mould and can move the ball forward through passing or taking it past opponents. This is something he did for previous club Toulouse and a trait he would bring to Spurs when we signed him.
Etienne Capoue shows what he can do
On a night when the focus was on us scoring goals, the return of a defensive midfielder to the line-up added some much needed stability to the side. Our first clean sheet on the road since Tromso followed and it was our first away shut out in the Premier League since our trip to Goodison Park at the start of November.
This wasn’t a vintage performance from start to finish; the Frenchman really did take time to grow in to the game. Once he did, both he and the side gained composure, allowing Nabil Bentaleb, Paulinho and Moussa Dembele to get up in support of Emmanuel Adebayor.
Bentaleb had arguably his best outing in a Spurs shirt, as did Paulinho with the pair scoring and assisting on three of our four goals. Etienne Capoue on the other hand, finally provided a player to take away the opposition’s space between the lines.
This is an area we’ve had trouble with since the new coach has taken over, as the centre backs have been playing much deeper than under AVB’s fabled high line. With two box-to-box midfielders in front them, there have been large pockets of space opening up, but Capoue took this area away. Newcastle were forced to lob balls over the top or to put in crosses.
By the end, Etienne Capoue had really laid down a marker for a place in the side with what he can do and how it allowed others to also excel. He may also have given Tim Sherwood something to think about with regards to his views on defensive midfielders.