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Spotlight: Etienne Capoue

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The French midfielder has gotten off to a hot start this year, but why? And can he keep it up?

Etienne Capoue has added goals to his game so far in this young season.
Etienne Capoue has added goals to his game so far in this young season.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Etienne Capoue scored precisely 0 Premier League goals last season. He didn't score any in 2014/15 either when he was still playing for Tottenham. He got 1 back in 2013/14, though. So just exactly what in the ham fat is going on? With 4 goals in his first 7 games of the season, Capoue has quadrupled his goals tally from the previous 3 seasons combined. He has the same number of goals this season as both Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo together (a pair I like to call Trodion Ighaney). This type of form is unprecedented for a 28 year old who has mainly plied his trade as a defensive midfielder, and I'm not really certain why this is happening.

Watford FC have gotten off to a fairly middling start to the season. They sit in 11th with 2 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats. They've scored 12 goals (the same number as Tottenham, in 2nd and Chelsea, in 7th) and conceded 13 (the same number as Sunderland, in 20th.) Their new manager, Walter Mazzarri, seems determined to instill some variant of a 3-5-2 system and Capoue appears to be the biggest beneficiary of this new approach. Last season, under Quique Flores, Watford mainly stuck to a 4-4-2 which meant Capoue sat deeper in his more typical holding role. Now he has an extra man in midfield as the deep lying player (typically Valon Behrami so far), which has given the Frenchman license to get further forward.

The strange thing is that Capoue's attacking statistics don't look much different to last season at first glance. His shots per game uptick is negligible (1.3 now vs. 1.1 last season), his passes per game are down (41.6 vs. 46.8.) Key passes are up to 1 per game as opposed to 0.7 per game last year but he's averaging less dribbles this season at 1.9 per game vs. 2.6. So how are these goals happening? The best guess I have is the efficiency of the shots he is taken has improved noticeably. Capoue is taking more than double the number of shots inside the box per game this season compared to 2015/16 (0.7 vs. 0.3.) And all 4 of his goals have come from inside the box (the goals against West Ham and Chelsea are near-identical.) In Mazzarri's 3-5-2, Capoue has suddenly become more of a box to box midfielder with license to make late-arriving runs into the area and feed on the space in behind Trodion Ighaney. This is especially evident on crosses, with defenses terrified of the aerial threat Watford's strike force poses.

Capoue has also matched his assist total from last season in these first 7 games... with 1 on a long ball from deep to Odion Ighalo against West Ham. His long passing, though less frequent, has gotten more efficient this season as well with a 67% success rate as opposed to 56% in 2015/16. This bodes well when you have the physicality and pace of Trodion Ighaney in front of you. Watford are averaging 10 fewer long balls per game and 19 fewer short passes as well. Mazzarri has clearly placed a premium on counter attacking and efficiency and Capoue's capability to go box to box and play a more efficient game has clearly played a key role in the new system early on.

So does Capoue have the ability to keep this up? I would say a cautionary yes provided Mazzarri continues to utilize the 3-5-2 and his star midfielder continues to find those pockets of space around 12-18 yards out. Looking at the statistics, Capoue hasn't drastically who he is as a player, he has just made some minor tweaks to his game and is playing in a system that allows him to be more attack minded. That's a good sign for him down the line as minor changes are easier to sustain and a system that helps a player doesn't usually suddenly stop helping him. Defenses will still focus primarily on Trodion Ighaney  when Watford put balls into the box which also bodes well for Capoue and even the likes of Roberto Pereyra (who I think could be a sneaky good pickup) going forward. As opposed to last season, Watford are relying more on their central midfielders to provide the support to their front men instead of the wingers. Which certainly helps explain Capoue's early success.

So should you continue to start him? He has gone scoreless over the last couple of games against Burnley and AFC Bournemouth and has an away fixture upcoming against a Middlesbrough team with a decent defensive record to date. I am personally going to keep him on my bench this week as a precaution but it wouldn't surprise me to see him find the scoresheet again coming off of the international break.