Before Saturday, the last time Steven Pienaar started a football match with manager Harry Redknapp in attendance the opposition in question was Cheltenham Town. It was the 3rd round of the FA Cup in January 2012 and it was the South African’s first start in three weeks since playing against Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League. It had come down to this for the South African, games against teams from League Two and the Irish League for the Spurs winger who had still not started a match in the Premier League that season for Redknapp at Tottenham.
Less than a month later Pienaar was back at Goodison Park on a six month loan. He would start all 14 matches he participated in for the rest of the season, sitting out a game against Tottenham who remained his employers. For now.
By the summer he was officially an Evertonian once again, a place he had blossomed at since 2007 when he initially joined on loan from Borussia Dortmund.
It was the right fit for Pienaar and the right fit for his manager David Moyes despite the Scot having to go against his instincts and break his own rules when it comes to transfer recruitment.
“I had a worry when it was first mooted about him coming back,” said Moyes in December. “But he has been inspirational to how we have played. He has helped the team and he has helped the crowd as well. He has certainly improved us and made us better.”
He added: ” I was worried about it second time around. At Everton we have always tried to do good deals and tried to buy at the right age or certainly at the right price. We had to buy Steven back for more than we sold him and he was a year older. It’s been a great deal for us and we’ve been delighted to have him and I’ve done many a worse deal. But at the time it just felt as if it wasn’t lying well with me.”
Pienaar’s move back to Everton has seen him started most games in a left wing position for the Toffees, although his overall tactical movement often sees him switch with the right-sided player and he has also occasionally started in a central position, off the striker, when Marouane Fellaini has been unavailable.
For Saturday’s home match against QPR, which saw Pienaar go up against Redknapp for the first time since his move, both he and Fellaini were restored to Everton’s starting XI after they each missed the win at home to Stoke and the draw at Tottenham through suspension.
Four points from the past two games without their star creators certainly satisfied Moyes in his push to contend for a place in Europe next season, even though the team struggled, without the pair, in successful crosses.
Crosses per game
Before those matches Everton led the Premier League in crosses per game average with 28. They remain second (to West Ham) with 27 through 33 matches. Without Fellaini’s height and Pienaar’s chemistry with left back Leighton Baines, the Toffees didn’t succeed as much as usual in wide areas.
The return of the pair on Saturday gave the Everton faithful an opportunity to see them get back to the style of play they have been so successful at this season.
Left side dominant
It is no surprise that Everton lead the league in attacks down the left flank, doing so in 43% of their attacks. It is equally not surprising that Baines is second in the league in successful crosses per game at 2.8 (Nicky Shorey is at 2.9 but has played half the amount of games as Baines). However, when this blog looked at Everton’s style earlier this season it asked if the team was actually crossing too much. At the time Baines was the runaway league leader in crosses per game at 3.8 so it is clear they have made slight adjustments in that area.
Despite that they remain close to the top in two key crossing categories and that is down to the strong bond developed between Baines and Pienaar. The pair have a very strong understanding both positionally and tactically of each other and revel in creating overlaps against opposing full backs.
In this video you will see when the ball is swung across how Pienaar immediately looks for space when his team-mate joins the attack. As the play develops Baines actually gets taken down and Pienaar is the first to see it because he is so used to looking for him, even without the ball. At one point he tells his team to kick the ball a different way but Baines soon recovers and the pair do what they do best…
No surprise, Baines to Pienaar was the game’s leading pass combination and no other players got close to the 23 they combined between each other.
Although much of that comes down to their chemistry it also exemplifies the outstanding movement Pienaar when searching for space. It’s the kind of work rate he also shows in the defensive side of the game, working diligently to pin full backs in so he and Baines can attack them when in possession….
Playing Fellaini behind the striker gives Moyes many strengths to his attack, not least the Belgian’s lateral movement and ability to link up with his winger and full back, sometimes at the same time, during possession. He is not a player who runs with the ball towards the goal and plays balls into his forward, choosing instead to do a lot of his damage with his back to goal, bringing in many team-mates towards the ball.
Not only does this create passing triangles but also causes the opposition confusion in their defending. In the first video example you will see just what the trio are trying to do and how QPR stick to their task and eventually stop the attack when Baines and Fellaini are blocked as outlets.
Later in the half, however, they are at it again and this time QPR don’t make adjustments and are opened up when they lose concentration.
Everton’s first goal
The opening goal of the game was somewhat fortunate for the home side as Darron Gibson’s long-range effort deflected off defender Clint Hill and into the net, but it did start from a move, once again, down the left. It again highlighted Pienaar’s movement and ability to find space. Ten minutes before the goal Moyes rotated Pienaar with right winger Kevin Mirallas, something he often does to keep defenders on their toes, yet in the buildup to the goal you will see both players involved. Miralles feeds Pienaar who sends Baines down the flank before the ball falls back out to Mirallas whose shot comes out to Gibson.
Everton’s second goal
QPR were completely dominated from the start of the second half up until Everton rightfully got a second to show their overall superiority. Although the second goal came from a corner, it was a corner gained from a free kick won on the left handside. Both the free kick and the corner were very well set pieces taken by Baines.
Baines finished the game with three successful crosses (just above his season average) but all three actually came from corners in this match, yet with Fellaini and Pienaar back in the team both his attempts and the team’s attempts were higher by some margin than they were in the two games prior.
A win against one of the league’s poorest teams at home was expected around the blue half of Merseyside but in an era where more and more team’s play narrow styles it was refreshing to see Everton stretch the play again with the return of the duo. Fellaini has rightfully got many plaudits for helping Moyes’ side compete for a spot in Europe all season but Pienaar’s influence should not be ignored. Just ask Leighton Baines.