Why Etienne Capoue Is the Perfect Foil for Jack Wilshere at Arsenal
Midfield is a problem. We know this.
If Abou Diaby isn't on his game, the burden is on Jack Wilshere to do almost everything: shuttle, chase, harass, harry, create and score. Is that a fair load for a 21-year-old coming off an 18-month injury? Of course not, he needs help.
The fact that Diaby's injury record is horrendous should have prompted Arsene Wenger into action in the summer of 2012—he's rarely strung a set of games together throughout his time in North London and has a well-documented issue with his muscles.
Arsenal run with a midfield of Mikel Arteta, Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey when Diaby isn't fit. While technically excellent, it's suspect from a positional point of view and very questionable from a defensive one.
Arteta plays a deep-lying role—a metronome-esque job if you will—and is happy to recycle possession, take 100 touches and rarely surge forward.
When Arsenal are in full control of the game, this is great. Ramsey's position, though, has been abused all season long—seeing him turn out on the right side of midfield is not pretty—and this "chop-and-change" policy with regard to his role has left him a little confused as to what he's supposed to be doing.
Which leaves Wilshere, who mops up for Arteta's lack of true defensive capabilities and Ramsey's erratic running patterns.
Arteta is great at reading the game, nipping in and putting in a tackle high up the pitch. When Arsenal press high, he thrives on the chance to win possession back quickly and uses his body well to close off areas of the pitch. In short, if the ball is in front of him, he'll go and get it.
The problem is when he's running toward his own goal.
When you play a sole deep-lying midfielder without a partner or a pivot, they have to be positionally excellent in and around their own box.
Andrea Pirlo, the famous regista and playmaker extraordinaire, gets help from Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, but if they commit themselves forward and Juventus are hit on the counter, the Italian is able to fend for himself on the reverse.
What Arsenal need is a defence-first holding midfielder—a player who knows how to react when running backward, drop into the defensive line to cover for a full-back and consistently select the correct position to stand in should his team lose the ball.
He needs to be comfortable recovering the ball anywhere on the pitch, and he has to take the defensive burden off Jack Wilshere.
That man is Etienne Capoue.
It's important to note that Capoue isn't playing his best football this season. Toulouse are on a steady decline, and some players went stale, but this Moussa Sissoko-less side is worse than the one that included a demotivated version.
In Alain Casanova's peculiar 4-1-4-1 formation, Capoue has been used as a sole anchor midfielder. If you pushed the wide midfielders forward 10-15 yards in starting position, the system would be similar in shape to the one Wenger uses.
His positional sense is excellent, and his cameos at central defender have been valuable, if brief, lessons to him in how to react when a full-back and centre-back shuffle wide to close down an opposing winger.
When Arsenal beat Aston Villa 2-1 at the Emirates in February, Andi Weimann scored a classic counterattacking goal. Weimann picked the ball up in his own half after he and Charles N'Zogbia ran straight past the Spaniard, ran forward and slammed it in the net.
Fingers must be pointed at Arteta and co. for reacting so, so late to the move. When the ball is in front of Arteta he's phenomenal, but when it's behind him, he struggles to react.
This has a knock-on effect, too.
With no certainty at all in this area, the entire Arsenal team react in different ways. Much was made of Arsenal's high defensive line against Tottenham, but they didn't maintain the high line for a full 90 minutes.
In fact, it was almost as if they shuffled up instinctively when Gareth Bale drifted wide or goalside of Arteta.
The Spaniard tracked him well for 20 minutes, but that tracking fell to pieces as the game wore on. Wenger instructed his midfielders to press high and hem Moussa Dembele and Scott Parker deep in their own half, while Arteta keeps an eye on a marauding Bale.
The Welshman was shut down initially, but as he started to move around and drop deeper, he was able to turn and run.
Wilshere was being pulled back, and he plays a very central, box-to-box game as a consequence of the positional uncertainty. That box-to-box role suits Wilshere and his high-energy, competent close-control game, but this last-ditch defensive responsibility doesn't.
The young Englishman has proved to us what an incredible threat he can be outside the opposition's penalty area, but he's not getting the chance to show his skills in that region often enough.
It's like he's being shackled.
As competent as Arteta is, he has a hole in his game that's hurting the team. Not many make a successful transition from excellent No. 10 to excellent No. 6, and Pirlo is a one-off.
At Everton he played behind the striker to great effect and never had to worry about what was behind him, but here he's the last man responsible, and he gets caught out.
Is Arteta to blame for the defensive line woes? Not entirely, but it's a factor. The uncertainty of the entire situation, however, is cause for concern for Wilshere.
Wenger needs to sign a prototypical holding midfielder who can lock up an entire area of the pitch so Wilshere can express himself higher up. That holding midfielder should be Etienne Capoue.
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