Kevin Affleck drools over Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré's partnership in the centre of the park...
If you were a football scout from Mars – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Pozzos’ sprawling network extending to other planets – and you landed at Old Trafford on Saturday with no preconceptions or prior knowledge of the established order in the Premier League, which of the three French midfielders on show would you have said was a World Cup winner and the most expensive player ever signed by an English club?
Let’s cut to the chase: the only real debate to have is which of the two dynamos in green would have been your first pick. Paul Pogba, all £89.3m of him, wasn’t even in the frame. Granted, Pogba was probably a bit leg weary as he’d played 90 minutes in Moldova and 90 against Iceland while Doucouré and Capoue largely had their feet up for a fortnight, but Andy Mitten, an authority on all things United, was bang on the money when he tweeted that the Red Devils “needed a Keane or Scholes in midfield today”. Capoue and Doucouré were that good that United need one of their great midfield titans to stop the Hornets winning the midfield battle hands down. That’s the calibre of player it takes to stop them running amok these days.
Capoue and Doucouré have been at it for a while now and are just starting to get wider recognition outside the confines of Vicarage Road. Danny Murphy, who is worth listening to given his pedigree as a midfielder, was onto it after the win over Leicester City.
“Those two have been terrific,” he said on Match of the Day. “As good a partnership as there are in the Premier League.”
It’s one thing doing it in the comfort of your own backyard against a Foxes side in a state of flux following the appointment of a new manager, but another thing all together when you turn it on at Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams.
“Doucouré and Capoue were outstanding and just dominated possession, dominated the ball,” said Derek Payne, a midfielder himself in his playing days. “They have come here and played really, really well – outplaying United.”
It was not clear how, or even if, Capoue and Ole Gunnar Solskjær know each other, after all football is such a small world, but the manager made a beeline for Capoue at full-time. One can only think the humble United manager was complimenting Capoue on his majestic performance. Capoue, as is his want, just laughed it off and cracked a joke. He was probably already thinking ahead to his next fix of NBA action or his next victim at pool at the training ground.
Capoue was the same with his countryman Willy Boly at full-time at Molineux, making light of what was another masterclass in the art of midfield play. All the talk that week was of Wolves’ talented Portuguese pair of Ruben Neves and João Moutinho, but Capoue and Doucouré ran all over them, passed round and through them in a thoroughly dominant display. The two internationals barely got a kick. Nuno Espirito Santo has since resorted to playing Leander Dendoncker in there as a comfort blanket to help them out.
Gracia has a wealth of midfield options – an England international can’t even get a shirt right now while an England Under-20 international is out on loan – but he does not need to crowbar another body in the key midfield area, like most do, to keep anybody happy or because someone can’t hold their own in a two. Doucouré and Capoue give him everything he needs and then some.
They complement each other so well, dovetail so neatly, instinctively knowing when to sit when the other one goes and where each other is when it comes to making that pass to recycle possession or relieve pressure. Neither plays quite as well without the other and France must have some array of midfield talent if neither of these two can get a sniff when it comes to picking their squad. In fact, Capoue snorted with laughter when asked by Sam Wallace, of the Telegraph, recently if he had checked to see if he was in France’s latest squad.
The 30-year-old has resigned himself to the fact that ship has probably sailed and knowing him, he’s cool with that. The last of his seven caps came in a goalless draw with Belgium in 2013 when he came on for Geoffrey Kondogbia. Capoue possesses the sort of talent bestowed on only a few, one that should have earned him at least 50 caps, but he’s the sort who is just happy with his lot, happy with his wife and three kids in Hadley Wood. “Football will stop one day but your family will be with you for your whole life,” he once said.
Doucouré is more ambitious and has made no secret of his desire to play in the Champions League and for his country. He got a taste of the international scene as a youth player, setting up a goal for Pogba in the semi-finals of the European Under-17 Championship. There they were beaten by England who, just by chance, had Nathaniel Chalobah in their ranks. Small world, eh? Doucouré wants more of that and his ambition, reiterated in an interview with Sky Sports this week, is to be admired. After all, Gracia doesn’t want players here in their comfort zone.
“I like this lad,” said Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday. “I think he’s just saying the right things at the right time. Would he tick Man United's box? All day long. You’d like to think that someone over here rates him highly enough to buy him.”
Doucouré looked to be waving farewell in the fixture at Old Trafford last season and the smart money would be on him appearing to do the same in the final game of this campaign. As is the case with all players at the club, Doucouré will only be allowed to leave if someone stumps up the money and if there is a succession plan in place. Otherwise, like Brexit, it’s no deal.
For now, we should let the transfer talk wash over our heads – amazingly, Capoue is never ever linked with a move – and just enjoy Doucouré and Capoue while we can during these heady, dreamy times. In years to come, they’ll be talked about in the same breath as Kenny Jackett and Les Taylor, and Richard Johnson and Micah Hyde. Play like they did at Old Trafford on Sunday and Doucouré and Capoue should join the others in representing the club in a final at Wembley.