There was a certain synchronicity in Everton’s first Goodison Park outing since the retirement of Steven Pienaar heralding the return to action of the South African’s former left-sided ally, Leighton Baines.
And here was confirmation that, while Pienaar’s 35-year-old legs can no longer withstand the rigours of top-level football, Baines, two years his ex-teammate's junior, has plenty of reserves in the tank yet.
Baines’ performance in Saturday’s victory over Brighton & Hove Albion demonstrated exactly why Sam Allarydce was so enthused by the prospect of being able to select the left-back for the first time, having been deprived of Baines’ services since taking over as boss back in November.
Indeed, manager Allardyce was already looking forward to picking the forceful Baines and fellow full-back Seamus Coleman ahead of last week’s trip to Burnley.
“We need their qualities and experience and, hopefully, they can show that when we get them back in the team,” said Allardyce.
“There is no doubt they contribute offensively and defensively. Not just with their passing ability or final-third attacking ability but, certainly from Seamus’ point of view, the added one on top of that is his goals – not just his assists. And Leighton is good on the assists side and penalties.”
Baines had 51 assists to his credit when Allardyce was considering the influence his England international defender could bring to bear on this Everton side.
Ninety minutes of football later – Baines’ first action following a 114-day absence – it is 52 assists… and counting.
Allarydce has overseen a commanding sequence of results at Goodison. And in the way Baines dovetailed with Cenk Tosun to wrap up this latest home success – and make it 20 points won from the 27 available in L4 since Allardyce watched Everton beat West Ham United 4-0 the night before his unveiling as boss – there were echoes of his uncanny understanding with Pienaar.
“He had a lot of trust in me, when to give me the ball and when not to, and the other way, too,” Pienaar recalled earlier this month.
“I think that is why it worked: because we trusted each other, the belief was there and we worked for each other.”
For the slender but sturdy Pienaar, see Tosun on Saturday, squat, robust and balanced, punching the ball back and forth to Baines, the pair sharing the same wavelength and instinctively timing and weighting their passes to eliminate a mass of Brighton defenders congregated in the penalty box.
Tosun crowned a flowing move in emphatic style, arrowing in a shot off the underside of the crossbar to all-but bank the three points which lifted Everton above their opponents and into ninth.
Baines has 32 Premier League goals on his CV, too. But you do not survive as a defender in England’s top-flight for 398 matches without mastering your day job.
First and foremost, Baines [whose heat map is shown below] is in the team to stop Everton conceding goals. And the player’s defensive merits are easily overlooked amid the understandable and frequent plaudits for his daring and panache.
Allardyce instilled a tremendous resolve in his side in the six games immediately following his appointment. Everton conceded just twice and recorded four clean sheets to amass 12 points in that period.
He has latterly underlined the imperative of rediscovering that steel, pointing to the productive consequences of shutting out opponents. Allardyce asked the Toffees to be “clinical and resilient” at the weekend.
And with Baines and Coleman [the Irishman's heat map is shown below] together in an Everton team for the first time under his charge, the former England boss saw the Blues act on his wishes.
Baines won all four of the duels he contested, made three clearances and completed 45 of his 49 passes – an 89.8 per cent success rate, bettered only by the energetic Tom Davies [91.2 per cent] of the game’s other starters.
The ex-Wigan Athletic man's average position [number 3 on the image below] – in Brighton’s half – and the 27 passes he steered into Albion territory provided an accurate reflection of the positive mindset Everton carried into this contest.
The inherently enterprising Coleman [23 on the below image] was stationed in a similarly advanced average position – both full-backs operating ahead of the Blues’ holding midfielder, Wayne Rooney – and delivered a typically rounded display.
Coleman completed four clearances, won two aerial duels and helped dictate the initial flow of the game by driving forward to send a shot narrowly off target on four minutes.
“The long-standing absences of Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have shown every Everton fan – and me today [following the Brighton victory] – why we have perhaps not got as many results as we should have done,” said Allardyce. “And that is not being unkind to Cuco Martina and Jonjoe Kenny, who have done brilliantly.”
Yannick Bolasie assumed the Pienaar role against Chris Hughton’s Brighton. The winger was making only his fifth start since December 2016 and first for more than a month.
His relationship with Baines is in its infancy – Baines and Pienaar had roughly four seasons together before their partnership hit its apogee in 2012/13, when the elegant duo created 41 per cent of Everton’s chances – and Bolasie knew he would have to do it tough against Brighton.
Hughton’s men boast the seventh-best defensive record in the division and came to Goodison buoyed by a seven-match undefeated run.
It would require a blend of imagination, skill and patience in order to see off such a cussed, well-drilled side – and Bolasie showed plenty of all three in the course of an encouraging and industrious 78-minute effort.
The highlight came when he weaved his way deep into Brighton territory, before whipping in a spiteful, dipping delivery which defender Gaetan Bong turned into his own net.
No player delivered more crosses from open play than Bolasie’s six and the three dribbles he attempted was the highest number of any player in the game.
What’s more, Bolasie sounded compelling notice about his swelling confidence by taking four shots at goal – a tally surpassed by only seven of his Premier League counterparts all weekend.
“We all know what Yannick Bolasie can do,” said Pienaar. “For him to come back is a plus for the team, because of his flair and directness.”
Just as it seems natural for Pienaar’s name to enter any discussion about Baines, so Phil Jagielka is inextricably linked with his fellow defender, too.
The pair joined Everton in summer 2007 and remain precious assets for the Club 11 years later. It was fitting, too, then, that Jagielka made his own comeback alongside Baines – albeit after a briefer, four-match absence.
Jagielka was magnificent at the heart of the Toffees' back-four, leading the way in Everton shutting out a Brighton team that had scored 15 goals during that unbeaten seven-game run.
The 35-year-old made the most clearances of any Everton player (six), won 75 per cent of his eight duels and completed three interceptions – a figure topped only by Rooney [four], a magnet for any stray Albion pass and revelling in his deep-lying position.
Allardyce’s sentiment was understandable, then, as he concluded: "I have to give everybody credit for their level of performance – the sort of performance they know they are capable of."