As you all know, Sunderland AFC is a club that recruits on a foundation of financial caution. This is a mindfulness time of value hunting; where the want of heavy player expenditure has broken way to the need of low-cost minor names; names that can do just enough to see a season through.
Names like Steven Jerome Pienaar.
Now, admittedly, a very few of us expected or wanted this signing to happen. A thirty-four year old trial-come-free transfer signing had that lacklustre stink about it and you’d be forgiven for having being angry over it all.
But! Here we are, one week later, and it’s looking like the South African is making good worth of himself for a man bought for nowt. And although that connotes questions about the standard of his teammates, it is nonetheless a rare positive amidst the early gloom of this season.
For a start, Pienaar was a tad meritorious against Middlesbrough on Sunday. He boasted the second most possession in the team despite playing under an hour and achieved 87% success from his 53 passes. Needless to say, he took over all the influence in central midfield when he was subbed on; and his good work continued again last night in the EFL Cup 2nd Round against Shrewsbury Town.
So that’s two games played and two performances praised for Steven Pienaar on Wearside. Whether or not the midfielder can continue this remains to be seen. Then again, it’s not as if he’s inexperienced in this league.
Last Sunday was Pienaar’s two hundredth Premier League match over nine years. In that time he has scored twenty-two goals with another forty assists, at an average goal contribution of one in every four matches.
As good as that already is, it says even more of the manager who was coaching the player through this praiseworthy form. David Moyes has overseen a majority of the South African’s senior career from the age of twenty-five, since loaning him from Borussia Dortmund in 2008, and last night marked Pienaar’s 189th match with his reunited manager.
Whatever it is that Moyes trusts about Pienaar was significant enough for the manger to buy him for £2.34 million in 2008 and again for another £4.89 million in 2012. Actually, if you include Harry Redknapp’s expense on Pienaar for Tottenham Hotspur in 2011; that means two highly experienced managers thought a player then-pushing thirty years old was worth a combined £7.95 million.
And this comes back to his record. Take Pienaar’s goal contribution again: in 2009/2010, he scored four and assisted two; in 2011/2012, he contributed to eleven goals over just fourteen matches; in 2012/2013, he tallied six goals and six assists. These are goal hauls our own players have struggled to reach, and Pienaar was accomplishing them at an age you’d usually expect decline.
Also the midfielder has built a fine reputation as being one of the more consistent possession-based attacking players in this league. Between 2009 and 2014, Pienaar’s pass accuracy never dropped below 82% for seasonal average, and to date it hasn’t fallen below 78%. Again, there has been an abundance of players here at Sunderland whose best seasonal average for passing hasn’t come close to Pienaar’s worst. Some of those players are still here, too.
However, you could argue that the player has nonetheless regressed with age. His final two seasons at Everton saw a trivial form slump, but that can be attributed largely to his exclusion from Roberto Martínez’ plans. That said, little of his omission from Martínez’ first team had much to do with his own performances. He just had competition preferred ahead of him.
Comparatively (and somewhat damning), Steven Pienaar’s record also shows both better form and a weightier goal contribution than many of Sunderland’s younger players around the same time. Last season aside, the winger has been just plain better than many of our own across most attacking and possession statistics for several years now.
And a lot of that has everything to do with David Moyes which, when you think about it, is probably the last thing anybody supporting Sunderland should complain about. Because regardless of how versatile Pienaar is across the attacking third or how many league titles or domestic trophies he has won, the true reason why Steven Pienaar is even at Sunderland is down to familiarity. That is a good thing.
As supporters, we have seen a lot of promising new recruits become unsuited surplus players in the eyes of the next temporary manager or head coach. Steven Fletcher was dispensable to Gustavo Poyet; Sebastián Coates was dispensable to Sam Allardyce, et cetera. That has been the root cause of our struggles for a long time: that lack of continuity and affinity between player and management.
Steven Pienaar represents that trend firmly bucked, and it should not be considered mismanagement on David Moyes’ part that he simply trusts a player who he managed for many years prior and who is already proven in this league. That Pienaar has been able to maintain his better form well into his thirties is a fortunate added bonus.
As for the player himself, the verdict here is to just set your expectations low. Pienaar will be 35 come May but he still has talent to spare. He’s a reliable creative outlet and, as we’ve already seen, can bring composure to a team currently dependent on inexperienced youth players. Whether we’re in for another season of goal contribution or just subtly good passing play, we should be confident that, under David Moyes’ management, Steven Pienaar can be as reliable for his manager now as he was for him before.