Even David Moyes doubted the wisdom of paying over-the-odds for Steven Pienaar in the summer. But the midfielder has once again proved to be an important player for Everton. Adam Bate examines why.
By Adam Bate - Follow me @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 10/12/12 4:25pm
When Everton paid Tottenham a reported £4.5million for 30-year-old midfielder Steven Pienaar in the summer, it appeared a strange bit of business given that the club had sold him to Spurs for a fraction of that fee the previous year. Even David Moyes admits he was uncomfortable with the arrangement.
"I was worried about it second time around," said the Everton boss, quoted in the Daily Mail. "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 just felt as if it wasn't lying well with me."
But when it comes to Pienaar, Moyes realised he had to make an exception. "We knew when last season finished that we had to bring Steven Pienaar back to Everton, really at any cost," he added. And the South Africa international's success since returning to Goodison Park highlights the dangers of ascribing a fixed value to a player - Pienaar is worth more to Everton than he could ever be to Tottenham.
The chief reason for that is his well-documented understanding with Leighton Baines down the Everton left flank. Toffees senior first team analyst Steve Brown is a numbers man but even he acknowledges that it did not require an in-depth look at the statistics to appreciate the merits of the signing."You can look at combinations of players," Brown told the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference earlier this year. "A prime example is that we took back Steven Pienaar in the last minute of the transfer window in January. We could have probably supported that with some stats because we knew what Steven had given us previously. But you [only had to] look at the combination he had with Leighton Baines at left-back and how many chances that created for us and how positive their play was on the left-hand side."
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Brown might not have needed to look at the statistics but they do support his views. Baines has played 14 more key passes than any player in the Premier League this season. And fourth on that list is his left-sided partner at Everton. Pienaar's unselfish movement and preference for cutting inside on his right foot complements the England left-back's tendency to drive forward down the flank. They create space for each other.
It's not a new development. "Those two have got a good thing going and are the perfect combination," pointed out Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard way back in 2009. The understanding they have developed has even shaped the team's style of play. An astonishing 44 per cent of their attacking play comes down the left wing, three per cent more than any other team in the division.
Much of that play is, of course, in conjunction with Baines. In 15 games together this season, he has found Pienaar on 192 occasions with the midfielder reciprocating 159 times. Against Spurs at the weekend, once again, no two players passed the ball to each other more times (19). "Getting Steven back was massive with the way he had played for us at the end of last season when on loan," Moyes told the Liverpool Echo. "He was the key to a lot of the things we did; the players enjoyed playing with him."
That enjoyment was never more apparent than when Pienaar popped up with a last-minute equaliser against his old club Spurs on Sunday, before Nikica Jelavic completed a dramatic turnaround to win the game for Everton. The six-point swing saw Moyes' team overtake their opponents and move back into the Champions League places.
The Everton manager may have been concerned he was overpaying for Steven Pienaar in the summer. But as the evidence builds up regarding the player's importance at Goodison Park, it is Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy who could be forgiven for wondering just how much more he could have squeezed out of the deal.