Étienne Capoue: Watford's Player of the Season
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In a parallel universe, one infinitely happier than that which the world is being made to endure at the moment, yesterday saw the curtain drawn on the Premier League season.

It's one that will live long in the memory, both for good and for bad reasons: interrupted by a global pandemic, 2019/20 was — or rather, has so far been — a tale of dominance, faltering giants, underdogs, and another enthralling relegation battle, destined whatever the coming months hold to be settled by the finest of margins.

Throughout the campaign, Watford have been perennial contestants in that battle towards the bottom of the standings. Prior to the arrival of current head coach Nigel Pearson in December, the Hornets looked one of the favourites to suffer the drop, an outcome which would bring an end to five consecutive years of top-flight football at Vicarage Road.

But amid the doom and gloom and the abjection that, despite the recent upturn in fortunes, still adequately summarises this season in Hertfordshire, there has been a constant shining light. Étienne Capoue has once again shown his sheer ability, underestimated by many but proving week-in, week-out to be Watford's best and most reliable performer.

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The numbers

Capoue is Watford's primary ball-winner, enlisted to recover possession for his team across the entirety of the midfield whilst having the licence to roam elsewhere as little or as frequently as his instinct commands.

Among his teammates, the 31-year old has amassed the most tackles (2.8) and interceptions (2.5) per game, showing that he is crucial in relieving pressure on the defence by offering both a barrier and a second line of pressing should the more advanced players in forward or wide areas be bypassed.

He ranks 14th and 3rd in the league for the tackles and interceptions metrics respectively, higher than the likes of acclaimed ball-winners N'Golo Kanté and Fabinho.

But Capoue is also the cardinal playmaker relied on by the Hornets to initiate their attacks once possession has been won. He has played the most passes per game (50.9) within the Watford squad, with a success rate of 82.5% — impressive for the team with the 3rd-lowest success percentage in the league, and especially given that 3.6 of those passes were long-balls and 4.7 supplied to the final third.

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And being the team's 4th-most proficient dribbler too (tallying 0.9 per game), it is clear that the Frenchman is comfortable bringing the ball up the pitch by whatever means necessary. He has admirably combined his defensive and attacking duties, allowing one to complement the other and providing the foundation to all that Watford do from his listed position in deeper midfield.

Tactical role

Under Pearson, Capoue operates as one component of a double midfield pivot, paired usually with either Will Hughes or Nathaniel Chalobah. The latter two are more directly involved in the creative side of the game than the Frenchman, whose main duty is to break up play and offload possession to more expressive teammates such as Abdoulaye Doucouré, Gerard Deulofeu or Ismaïla Sarr as quickly and precisely as possible.

He acts as a destructive shield in front of the back line, but also one of the initial points from which attacks can be mounted — a transitional playmaker, perhaps. It's a role many players would struggle to fulfil to the standard achieved by Capoue.

The 31-year old also uses his tremendous stamina and endurance to stray from his deeper position and press an opponent — relying on Doucouré or his holding midfield partner to cover — forcing the opposition either to go long, switch the point of their attack, or take greater risk of surrendering possession to one of the most aggressive and proficient ball-winners in the league.

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His instinct and tirelessness, both physical and mental, make for a pressing machine that even caused trouble to world and European champions Liverpool back in February, though they are far from the only ones to suffer from Capoue's unwavering determination and tenacity. His long, mazy runs from deep to win the ball back for his team have been inspiring, tone-setting, entertaining, and often productive.

Perhaps a good example can be taken from the victory over Aston Villa in December, when the midfielder stealthily nipped at the feet of Jack Grealish to steal possession. He passed the ball to Troy Deeney, stormed down the open left flank to receive it back, and provided an inch-perfect cross for Sarr to prod home.

The 31-year old then truly deserved his moment of respite from the exertion, breathing heavily as he lay on the ground with Sarr wheeling towards him in celebration. His tactical nous, physical attributes and pure ball-winning intuition continue to reap their rewards.

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Other contenders

Even in this season of struggles and, at times, even anguish, there have been other players aside from Capoue worthy of mention in Watford's Player of the Season conversation.

Goalkeeper Ben Foster was awarded the honour by The Athletic for his services on and off the pitch, his engagement and honesty with supporters cited as a major reason behind his considerable popularity at Vicarage Road. But while this is important, in a purely footballing sense performances have not been as consistent as those of Capoue — for every three wonder-saves, there could be one crippling blunder.

The 37-year old veteran has of course singlehandedly won points for the team. From a total of 89 saves throughout the season — the 6th-most in the league — those made against Sheffield United, Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers stand out as particularly vital moments which have kept the Hornets afloat thus far.

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But errors such as that made against Tottenham Hotspur in October paid their price, to the extent that some corners of the fanbase were beginning to question Foster's reliability earlier in the season. It would be hard to argue that Capoue has himself been at fault for any points lost this term, hence why he edges the award over the shot-stopper.

Another firm contender is Sarr, and anyone who has watched Watford in the last six months will know why. The player with the club-record transfer fee of around £35m attached to his name has justified the decision to spend big and secure his signature in the summer, contributing five goals and three assists, while just one of six league wins this campaign came without the involvement of the winger.

The 22-year old has been crucial, especially since Pearson took charge — but this is just the issue with Sarr's case for Player of the Season. He is one of Watford's most technically and physically gifted players, but had little luck under previous managers Javi Gracia and Quique Sánchez Flores who, either due to tactical inclinations or injury misfortunes, used the Senegalese international sparingly.

Capoue, though, has been ever-present, consistent and exceptional throughout 2019/20, and throughout the last five years of top-flight football at Vicarage Road, too — he is not just Watford's Player of the Season, he is Watford's player of this entire Premier League stint.

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The truth is that the campaign needn't be completed for this choice to be made.

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