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Merci Pour Tous Étienne

Matt Rowson says farewell to Étienne Capoue

A wholesale revamp of a squad is rarely anything other than exciting. In part this is because wholesale revamps cost money and therefore tend to only happen when you’re kinda on the up… unsuccessful squads tend to crumble more gradually because, well, players have contracts and nobody wants to buy bad players.

The turnover of players under the Pozzos has been high, but the summer of 2015 represents the most recent such overhaul (2012, 2005, 1997 and less positively 2001 the others in recent memory). In early January, the last of that summer’s many recruits moved on.

You probably wouldn’t have bet on that being Étienne Capoue back in 2015. Arguably the highest profile of that summer’s signings, likelier outcomes would have been a swift exit after it not working out at all or a swift exit after it demonstrably working out rather well. Instead he played for the yellow and black (sometimes red), well, hoops, stripes, halves and whatever this season’s thing is for five and a half-ish years.

He was immediately, breathtakingly, fabulous, capable of wrong-footing opponents simply by shifting the weight of his body, elegant, clever, hard as nails. But only some of the time. That first season his fluctuation in form was erratic with some diffident lows, often only a week after the startling highs. He ended on a high of sorts, a tour de force against Palace at Wembley, our performance wilting as he limped off. He had been moved around Quique’s conservative midfield, excelling on the left-hand side at Old Trafford, and continued to be shunted around by Walter Mazzarri. He opened that season with four goals in the Italian’s first five games from an offensive midfield role, including a howitzer against Manchester United which led James Richardson to proclaim “Mou’s blue after Capoue kerpow!” in his headlines section at the start of the subsequent Guardian Football Weekly podcast.

But his form continued to fluctuate, and by the end of the season we were speculating whether he needed stiffer competition for a starting place to coax the consistency out of him. Sure enough, with Abdoulaye Doucouré fully integrated, Tom Cleverley’s loan made permanent and Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes both arriving in the summer, Capoue found himself out of favour. He didn’t start a Premier League game until late September, and made the first 11 only five times in Marco Silva’s 24 games.

Only on the arrival of Javí Gracia did Capoue produce his monumental best on a consistent basis, and whilst his Player of the Season campaign, Cup Final and all, in 2018/19 sticks in the memory, Gracia’s impact was more immediate. Capoue was installed alongside Doucouré in central midfield from the very start of the Spaniard’s tenure and stayed there, producing the most consistent run of his Watford career to that point at the tail of the campaign. There was a portent of what was to come at home to Chelsea, when Capoue responded to Eden Hazard’s late equaliser by dragging his team up by its bootstraps, surging defiantly forwards with Chelsea scattering in his wake. Seven minutes later we were 4-1 up. It was his form in 2018/19 that elevated him to another level. If his fitful form earlier in his Watford career had us shrugging and reflecting, ‘if he could do this every week he wouldn’t be playing for us’, then suddenly he could and he was. By his own admission this was the season of his life, a season in which he reportedly achieved more interceptions than anyone else in the top five leagues in Europe. He was simultaneously a rock for opponents to break on, a dynamo howling after possession and a nimble, elegant footballer once he had the ball, capable of switching play with the effortless precision of a quarterback. Frankly, and given what’s happened since it’s easy to forget this detail, he should have propelled us to European qualification. It’s significant that whilst his form dipped in the relegation campaign, as everyone’s did, he remained a consistent force for good. Many Watford legends have achieved that status with careers under one manager only (typically the same manager) but not in this era… and so that Capoue was able to maintain his consistent form in the chaos of 2019/20 is significant; his hamstring-induced absence from the end of the season one of the many entries on the ‘if only’ list.

But whilst ‘Legend’ is a necessarily subjective award with no strict qualification conditions, Capoue falls short. Clearly a tremendous footballer and had he left in the ‘summer’ break perhaps perspective would have been different; relegation certainly doesn’t disqualify a candidate in itself. But he didn’t get his move in the summer and his conduct since has tarnished his record. ‘Legend’ implies some sort of emotional connection, the lack of which was betrayed by his callous indifference to Watford’s season. Not wanting to play in the Championship is fine, even understandable, heaven knows he’s capable of better. Taking a salary while not giving a damn, not so much. The stupid challenge at Birmingham. The criminally negligent own goal at Huddersfield. The not terribly veiled comments by Tommy Mooney on Hornet Hive about the positive effect of his departure spoke volumes. A shame.

So merci pour tous Étienne. One of the best players ever to wear the shirt, without doubt. But no legend.