Everton showed brilliant confidence and resilience to dig deep and keep their top four ambitions running smoothly with a 4-1 win over Fulham at Goodison Park on Saturday.
Goals from Leon Osman, Seamus Coleman, Gareth Barry and Kevin Mirallas sealed the victory for the Toffees, but it was a scoreline that slightly flattered to deceive as René Meulensteen’s side produced a valiant second-half display to stifle the host’s fluidity.
The Cottagers were dogged and closed Everton down, particularly in the centre of midfield, in a quick manner and Roberto Martínez’s men needed to demonstrate strong character to bounce back from a Dimitar Berbatov penalty and did so with three goals in the space of 18 minutes.
In a game that saw Fulham stop Everton from getting into their possession-heavy rhythm tremendously well, Steven Pienaar produced a sumptuous performance for 88’ minutes and played a huge role in ultimately splitting the sides on the day.
Structure & Position: What Martínez Wanted and Got From His Players
Martínez made two changes to his Everton side that earned a fantastic 1-1 draw away at Arsenal last weekend. Mirallas was dropped to the bench for Gerard Deulofeu and James McCarthy, who missed out through suspension, was replaced by Osman.
And Osman played well in place of the Republic of Ireland international, grabbing one goal and one assist on his 300th Premier League appearance for the Blues.
He was composed when in possession, completing 93% (52) of his 56 attempted passes, alongside Gareth Barry in the double pivot but Fulham’s configuration impressed and made it difficult for Everton to play through the middle of the pitch – like they did so well against both Manchester United and Arsenal in the two games previous.
Whilst the first-half saw them sit deep into their own half when Everton were on the ball, the second-half saw Fulham press with excellent spirit and their midfield trio of Steve Sidwell, Scott Parker and Giorgos Karagounis in particular made 15 tackles between them.
The only thing that was missing from such a promising away performance from the London outfit was a clinical edge when in good attacking positions, such as Alexander Kačaniklić’s horrendous miss when found unmarked in the box.
Sylvain Distin, who won 100% (2/2) of his attempted tackles, made three interceptions and five ball recoveries, mopped up well when Everton lost possession and Fulham probed, whilst the Merseysiders took their goals, which were all conjured up from wide areas, proficiently.
With the intense pressure applied by Fulham, in particular from Sidwell, to stop Ross Barkley from getting on the ball and driving forwards to create opportunities for Everton to score, Pienaar’s willingness to come centrally towards the ball and make the crucial space to sway the game in his side’s favour came to the fore.
The South African’s appreciation to drag opposition players away from their positions and create holes for his team-mates, or himself, to run into is first-class and that was telling in Everton grabbing their first two, and most essential, goals in the match.
Attacking Play: How Pienaar’s Role in Everton’s More Relentless Attacking Play under Martínez Deserves Greater Plaudits
Whilst there have been major cries from large sections of the Everton fanbase to see both Deulofeu and Mirallas start on the flanks together in Martínez’s exciting tactical shape, the importance Pienaar currently holds in the team going forwards mustn’t be understated.
With his sublime close control and nimble footwork, the absence of his usual left-sided partner Leighton Baines has surprisingly shed light on how Pienaar is much more significant than just being a presence to bring the best out of the England international.
In the first 12 games of the 2012/13 campaign, Baines had created 50 chances, including assists, under David Moyes whereas in contrast to this season under Martínez, the 29-year-old has created just 15 within the same amount of fixtures.
The space created for Baines by Pienaar often goes unnoticed and the same shouldn’t happen with Bryan Oviedo, who has produced a string of magnificent displays of late when utilising the freedom of the touchline Pienaar generates by operating in a sporadic central position.
The thought of both Deulofeu and Mirallas starting and interchanging for Everton is exhilarating, but against Fulham, a man with the ability to pull players away and bring others into play when receiving the ball in tight areas was needed and Pienaar come up trumps in that respect.
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Martínez hailed Pienaar’s importance to his Everton plans earlier this month.” quotestyle=”style02″] He’s [Pienaar] such a special footballer and what he brings to us into the way we play is quite unique. Stevie’s experience is a valuable part of this squad and its a real bonus to have him back at his best. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]
Against Fulham, Pienaar created five chances, including his assist for Osman’s goal, and his technique and calmness when in control of the ball was fantastic to watch. In attack overall, he only completed three out of his seven attempted crosses into the box and just one of three attempted take-ons, but it was his link-up play and skill that was more imperative than necessarily beating a man.
In the first goal, as the image above tells the story, Pienaar made space for Oviedo on the left and drifted into the centre to make further space for Osman. He let the ball run slickly across his body, drawing Parker towards him, and that gave Osman the opportunity to score the goal.
Whilst Baines is undoubtedly one of the greatest left-backs in world football, it is telling that Everton are continuing to score goals in wide areas without him and a large part of that point’s towards Pienaar’s great ability at making space on the field, and intelligence to link-up with Oviedo in the same style.
In conjunction with his gifted movement off the ball, Pienaar’s poise on it saw Everton’s build-up play stick the most through him. Overall, Pienaar completed 93% (43) of his 46 attempted passes and made more than anybody else in the attacking third with 20. He received the ball on 46 occasions and picked out Barkley, who won 100% (4/4) of his attempted tackles and made the most passes in the game (60), in 11 instances.
During the second goal, Pienaar drifted from the centre of the pitch into a more wide area when being given a pass from Oviedo and his clever awareness of what’s around him drew Philippe Senderos towards him, and allowed himself the space to find a cross which resulted in Coleman’s strike.
Letting the ball run through his legs and combining with Romelu Lukaku down the left was wonderful but what was even more exceptional was again the amount of space he managed to open up for himself rather than a team-mate, although the above image shows the sheer amount of space that was left for Oviedo to move into.
The concerns that he would not be the same figure without Baines have quickly been dispelled by his own performances, and also Martínez ensuring Everton are more of a threat centrally, and Pienaar was also himself when Everton needed to be focused defensively in Fulham’s spell of dominance in the second-half.
Whilst Fulham’s equaliser gave Everton the impetus to kick-on and attack in order to earn a massive three points, Meulensteen’s side were the better outfit for the first 20 minutes of the second-half and 4-1 doesn’t really give a fair reflection of their decent showing.
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Martínez gave credit to Fulham in his post-match thoughts. ” quotestyle=”style02″]I always felt that this Fulham side has been galvanised in the last two weeks, they’ve been performing in a very, very energetic manner and we saw that. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]
However, Everton were strong defensively and their back four responded well when Fulham seized the ball through intense pressing at times and broke at them. The visitors had no shots on target in the first-half and stepped up in the second, but in the end, Fulham failed to bury their chances and Everton extended their run to 21 consecutive home wins against them.
In the defensive aspect for Pienaar, despite completing his only attempted tackle and making just one interception, the statistics don’t echo how hard he worked when Everton were without the ball against Fulham.
As the above image shows, he tracked back to defend so attentively that he found himself extremely deep into his own half at times. When back, Pienaar screened and helped make it difficult for Fulham to find routes to exploit through the middle – although that was also down to the fact that despite opting for strength and energy being a good choice, they lacked a midfielder who could craft that little bit better at the same time.
By drifting away from the flanks throughout the game, Pienaar was able to affect things in both areas of the pitch – from playing his part in shutting off channels for Fulham to move into and also picking up the ball and making the crucial space that helped Everton win the game.
Taken as a whole, Everton fans can be pleased that they didn’t play with the same eye-catching fluency that has lightened up their season so far yet managed to score four goals and earn a vital three points for their inspiring season objectives.
Although Coleman earned the club’s Man of the Match award, with no major complaints, Pienaar deserves a big mention not just for how decisive his display was in helping Everton beat Fulham but for a performance which captured him at his playmaking best.
Steven Pienaar heat map via Daily Mail Online ‘Match Zone’ & Stats images via the excellent FourFourTwo StatsZone app.