Already this season, several of the usual Premier League trends have been bucked. Arsenal’s defence has been close to rock solid, Mario Balotelli has completely avoided controversy and Everton have got off to a flying start. It has become almost customary for David Moyes’ men to open with their traditionally slow start, before picking up form and momentum in the latter part of the season. The exceptional start this year has seemed to take many by surprise, when in reality it should not have done. The Toffees’ upturn in form in the second half of last season was not coincidence but the result of a successful January transfer window.
Nikica Jelavić, the £5.5m signing from Rangers, hit the ground running and provided the much needed firepower that had been lacking at Goodison Park previously. His impact was instant, providing Everton with a constant penalty box threat and adding goals to the team, becoming the quickest player to reach 10 goals for Everton since Tom Browell in 1912. As is customary with strikers he earned many of the plaudits, just as Marouane Fellaini is currently after his excellent start to the new campaign.
Over the 15 Premier League games after the January transfer window closed, starting with the 1-1 draw against Wigan on 4 February, Everton were ranked fifth in the form table behind the two Manchester clubs battling for the title, Arsenal and Wigan (who went on a remarkable run to avoid relegation). They only suffered two defeats, one of which was in the Merseyside derby when Moyes selected a weakened team ahead of the FA Cup Quarter-final tie with Sunderland. There was no reason to expect Everton to start slowly, since they were one of the best sides in the division after some astute signings in January.
Whilst Jelavić got plenty of the acclaim, it was actually another one of the winter additions who had the biggest influence. Steven Pienaar re-joined the club from Tottenham, on loan initially, and proved to be the catalyst for the improved performances and results. Goal scorers are vital to any successful side but whilst players such as Jelavić and Fellaini are important, they require service to be successful.
Prior to Pienaar’s return, Moyes seemed fairly uncertain as to what his best left-sided combination was. Indeed, in the four matches preceding the South African’s return, Moyes used Royston Drenthe, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Victor Anichebe in that left sided position. The games against Aston Villa and Spurs were indicative of the shape we often saw from Everton in the first half of the season. Both full-backs pushed on and influenced the game equally and there was no real pattern as to how Leighton Baines and the left-sided midfield player interacted, meaning the left-back was relatively ineffectual for a player of his ability.
Compare that with the home game against Chelsea on 11 February, Pienaar’s first home game since his return and one in which he scored, and the change in shape was already evident. Already Pienaar was tucking inside, allowing Baines to advance outside him with a focus on attacking in this area, with the right-side remaining more slightly more defensive.
Pienaar’s return to the squad and the reestablishment of his partnership with Baines has been fundamental to Everton’s success since February. In the 3-0 victory against Swansea at the weekend, Everton were magnificent and fully deserved their margin of victory. They outplayed Swansea and caused problems right from the first whistle, with much of the danger stemming from the Baines-Pienaar axis (with special credit to Fellaini and Anichebe too). They completed more passes to each other than any other combination on the pitch and by drifting inside, Pienaar opened up space for Baines to create five chances from attacking positions.
The Toffees have been at their best this season when the combination of these two has worked most impressively. In the 2-2 draw with Newcastle they combined brilliantly, as did they against Aston Villa in the 3-0 win at Villa Park. The victory at home to Manchester United on the opening weekend was slightly different, as Moyes executed a specific tactical plan to better Sir Alex Ferguson.
In the first five games, Pienaar has racked up one goal and three assists, whilst also allowing Baines to return to the sparkling form he displayed during their previous stint together. The left-back is undoubtedly one of the best in his position in the league and the effect of Pienaar’s return to his output should not be underestimated. As Michael Laudrup found out the hard way, teams must prevent these two being so dominant if they wish to halt Everton in their tracks.