One hundred passes. Every game, 100 passes. That’s not the only thing Yohan Cabaye looks to achieve in each match he plays, but he knows that if he completes 100 passes, it’s a good sign. He got the idea after reading an interview with Andres Iniesta, who said that if his Barcelona and Spain team-mate Xavi made under 100 passes in a match, he was furious. “That stuck with me,” said Cabaye. “One hundred passes, I must hit that now! Since that day, I try to be at the heart of every move.”

The Frenchman may not have made the same spectacular start to this season as last, when Newcastle went unbeaten for the first 12 Premier League games, but he has become a key player for club and country, and in double-quick time. Before France ended Spain’s 24-match winning run in qualifying matches (which goes back to September 2007) on Tuesday night, Spain boss Vicente del Bosque compared Cabaye to his own midfield metronome, Xavi. “That kind of thing gives me confidence but I know I have a long way to go,” Cabaye responded.

Cabaye was one of France’s few players to emerge from Euro 2012 with any credit; with Laurent Blanc trying to emulate Spain’s style of play (until he forgot all his principles when Spain were the opposition), Cabaye was often described as the Xavi of Les Bleus.

“For me, Xavi is the best player in the world,” Cabaye told L’Equipe. “Whenever there is a Barcelona match, I watch it, to learn, try to get closer to his level, even though I know it’s impossible. But I can try. He always keeps the ball. He is always on the move, always finds good space. He always makes the pass that can take out three players.”

As a youth player at Lille, Cabaye was taught the importance of ball retention while players were encouraged to keep moving, but it was only when Rudi Garcia replaced Claude Puel as first-team coach that the ethos affected Cabaye as a professional. Garcia wanted his team to build from the back, and in Mickael Landreau had a goalkeeper who was excellent with his feet and would start moves himself. “If you run to move, and not to chase the ball, that’s less tiring,” said Cabaye. “But just chasing and harrying, that’s not my game.”

Newcastle coach Alan Pardew knew it too, and when Cabaye arrived in the North-East, a region he has described as being similar to Lille, at least in terms of architecture, mentality and weather, if not local dialect, his integration was helped because of Newcastle’s style of play. Not that he found it easy: he remembers gasping for breath during his debut against Arsenal, and looking at the clock thinking the game was almost over when it still had 20 minutes to go.

He worked hard with a personal trainer, Fabien Richard, to build up his physical strength to cope with the English game. Richard helped him at Lille as well, even though the French club never knew about him. Nor do Newcastle for that matter, but given that Cabaye has played over 30 league games for each of the last five seasons, it’s unlikely they will mind. After all, he does not get injured often (which is more than can be said for his France team-mate Abou Diaby).

This weekend, Cabaye will start for Newcastle in the Wear-Tyne derby against Sunderland. It’s the fixture that kick-started last season’s terrific run: in Week Two, Newcastle won 1-0 at the Stadium of Light and went from strength to strength, while Sunderland never recovered.

The return match, last March, was a 1-1 draw and it was memorable for a rare moment in which Cabaye lost his temper. He clashed with Sunderland defender Phil Bardsley in the build-up to Ryan Taylor’s goal back in August, and realized it was not forgotten when, before kick-off, the two players saw each other. “He shook my hand very strongly and gave me a long look,” Cabaye said. “He made it clear he had not forgotten. I thought: ‘Okay,’ and in my first challenge with him, I went in hard and I got a yellow card. I know it was not right – but it’s the kind of thing that makes me grow up.”

He says he is more mature now, giving as an example his ability to switch off to speculation about his future. When he was younger, and Bordeaux wanted him, it affected his game; but talk that Manchester United were thinking about him over the summer had no impact. Instead he took a long holiday after Euro 2012, and focused on his pre-season.

He has only won 19 caps for France but already feels like a senior player; and the same is true at Newcastle. In his second season, Cabaye, still only 26, is a leader of the team (especially in the absence of the injured Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor). The player who just helped break Spanish hearts will have two initial targets for Sunday: to keep his temper in check, and make 100 passes. The rest should then follow.