For all of seven minutes at Goodison Park last Saturday, Crystal Palace managed to claw back parity having gone a goal down to a resurgent Everton. Christian Benteke’s opportunistic drive to level the scores was tame, slow and not struck with any kind of placement. And yet it still found the back of the net by virtue of squirming horribly under the embarrassed Jordan Pickford who really should have made an easy save.
Albeit briefly, Pickford was left to stew in the knowledge that he had allowed a comfortable lead to slip and was once again under the microscope for some unconvincing goalkeeping.
Yes, later on in the same half the 25-year-old made a stunning reflex save to deny Benteke a second and his side went on to win 3-1 at a canter, but this does not detract from the uncomfortable truth that there is now more than a few question marks emerging over Pickford’s ability as a top-class keeper. With the Euros around the corner the timing of this wobbly form could not be much worse for player and country.
Indeed England’s number one showcasing worrying and erratic form, represents yet another regression for the national team in such a crucial position.
The issue facing Gareth Southgate is that, like many of his predecessors in the England hot seat over the past few years, his choice of number one goalkeeper is chronically underwhelming. For a time, Joe Hart represented a sturdy and solid option. A title winning keeper, playing for one of the best side’s in Europe; he appeared to be the long-term, top-class solution that had evaded the Three Lions since David Seaman’s retirement in 2002.
However, a shockingly fast and unforeseen decline in Hart’s abilities left Southgate with little option but to place his trust in Pickford. There were genuinely few other credible candidates at the time who realistically had a long-term shot at England duty.
The former Sunderland man is by no mean’s a terrible keeper. Some of the criticism that has come his way has criminally overlooked the effect of a bang-average defence that’s offered it’s keeper little to no protection.
And yet Pickford is not blameless, far from it. The stat that many turn to in judging keepers is errors leading to goals. However, this stat is often misleading and fails to paint a full picture of a goalie’s influence or lack thereof. Pickford’s gaffe at home to Palace leaves him on two for the season; level with the likes of Bernd Leno, Hugo Lloris and the celebrated Rui Patricio. Not too shabby in all fairness.
More illuminating is to look at a keeper’s shots saved percentage; however, this stat really does Pickford no favours. Of all starting numbers one’s in the Premier League, he is currently ranked second from bottom, saving just 63% of the shots he has faced. Indeed, his howler against Benteke was the fifth goal he’d conceded from his last five shots faced in the league.
Again, saving shots is just one facet of the position and is often given too much credence over a keeper’s other massively important duties. Decision making, starting positions, handling and mental composure are all key components. However, many times this season, Pickford has been all too rash and erratic with his handling, causing panic and confusion in the backline. His distribution is also nowhere the levels that is now expected of side’s looking to challenge for serious honours.
When facing superior opponents, these weaknesses are ruthlessly exposed. You simply cannot progress long term with a weak keeper. With Pickford showing no signs of arresting his alarming decline this season, speculation about his long-term spot for England is only natural.
However, one saving grace which may buy the Everton goalie some time, is that Southgate simply doesn’t have a blessing of riches in this position. Nick Pope of Burnley and Dean Henderson of Sheffield United are the two most obvious alternatives and have enjoyed decent campaigns for their respective clubs.
You would not bet on either player dislodging Pickford any time soon though. Neither man has anywhere near the kind of experience required for the pressure cauldron of international football. Southgate would be gambling in the extreme, if he were to select a rookie going into the European Championships. The Toffees number one won many plaudits for his performances at Russia 2018 and will likely remain a safer bet come June, however, such a modest array of options in such a crucial position does not bode well for the national team manager.
England have had no shortage of decent stoppers down the years, although the barren eras in between have been extremely worrying and proven difficult cycles to break.
From the dark days of an ageing David James and Rob Green in 2010 to Paul Robinson and Scott Carson before them; England looked to have turned a corner with this position over the last decade. Sadly though the brutal reality for Southgate is that he is severely limited in his options and may have no choice but to opt for Pickford no matter how below par his season pans out between now and May.
You don’t necessarily need keepers of the elitist levels to claim the biggest prizes; but equally, you cannot go into a tournament expecting to be successful with a jittery custodian unsettling your back four. England fans will attest to this uncomfortable truth through years of experience. They may have to learn to live with it again as another beleaguered manager struggles for real options between the sticks at a major tournament.