Pienaar's retirement reminds Everton fans how good they once had it
Former Everton and South Africa midfielder Steven Pienaar announced his retirement on Wednesday, leading to an inevitable focus on his two spells on Merseyside, the legacy created by his performances, not to mention the failed attempts at progress since his departure.
Along with Mikel Arteta, Pienaar stood as creator-in-chief during a David Moyes era that appears comparatively halcyon alongside the dirge currently served up on the pitch. This season has become a chore for supporters amid a sequence of results across the last two seasons showing one win in 22 away league games.
Working in tandem with left-back Leighton Baines as the pair struck up a near-telepathic understanding on the left flank, Pienaar missed 11 games injured in 2009-10 and still strolled to the fans' player of the season award. But it was his return from an ill-fated 12 months at Tottenham in January 2012 that saw the best of Pienaar in royal blue. In just 14 matches, he scored four goals and recorded seven assists, ending the season with team-high figures on assists and chances created per game.
Injuries blighted his final years at Goodison before his release at the end of the 2015-16 season, but his absence has remained keenly felt. A succession of managers and four transfer windows later, Everton are still searching for a post-Pienaar solution. The latest remedy has seen Gylfi Sigurdsson wasted in the role. In truth, Everton spending £45 million on a No.10 only to use him the left seems an apt summary of a season of missteps.
Pienaar announcing his retirement also turns attention to matters off the pitch, specifically recruitment. Transfer fees and the money involved in football has risen astronomically since Pienaar first arrived on loan in 2007, eventually signing for £2m later that season, but there are still lessons to learn from how Everton operated in those more frugal times.
The Moyes era represented effective spending, but this trait has faded over time as the influx of television money and the wealth of majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri has provided recent Everton managers with deeper pockets from which to recruit new signings.
But this has fostered carelessness, as without the pressure of having to make every penny stretch as far as possible, there has been a quick-fix approach toward success, throwing large sums of money at players without always appearing to know what to do with them after signing them.
Everton are among the biggest spenders in European football in the past two seasons but have precisely nothing to show for it. The Toffees have signed eight players for fees upwards of £20m since July 2016, and two of those, Cenk Tosun and Davy Klaassen, may already be regretting their decision to swap regular first-team football for life on the Everton periphery.
Tosun has received a mere 176 minutes of football despite manager Sam Allardyce championing his credentials upon arrival, while Klaassen has seen his season practically written off, last appearing in the Premier League in September, accumulating just 190 minutes of league action in a wretched first season.
This misuse of players plays a part in this growing detachment between the club and supporters. Excessive and confused spending is also a factor behind this loss of identity. The £7.1m signing of Idrissa Gueye at the start of last season feels like the last astute move, the sort of business that was a regular feature during those days Pienaar first patrolled the Everton midfield.
The cumulative effect of this misguided recent spending is an unbalanced squad that has lacked continuity throughout the season and travels to Burnley on Saturday chasing an elusive away win, trying to halt a run of five successive defeats on the road in all competitions.
Six defeats in the last nine games have eroded confidence, while supposed defensive solidity has evaporated amid a nine-game run without a clean sheet. Continued upheaval has seen 10 centre-back pairings in the past 11 matches.
A 1-0 win at Newcastle in December stands as the only away success in the past 14 months. In six away games since then, Everton have lost five times, exited the FA Cup, scored just three goals, and not netted a single first-half goal. How this team could do with a playmaker in the Pienaar mould, someone capable of rising above the malaise and dictating matches.
Everton are somehow worse off despite spending more than £270m on players since Moshiri entered the picture. The cruel irony of years spent yearning for more spending power and progress is that Everton now seemed to have more going for them when they were among the paupers of the division. The current setup could certainly learn a thing or two about transfers and moulding a team to be more than the sum of its parts.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.