A few weeks ago, I was able to speak to former Leeds, Tottenham, and England goalkeeper Paul Robinson about his view on the art of goalkeeping in the modern game. Insightful and educational, the chat then moved on to a matter he knows full well about, being under pressure as a top-flight goalkeeper. Specifically, he spoke about Jordan Pickford, under scrutiny after several high-profile errors for Everton this season.
“I think he’s a top keeper who at the moment is struggling to find consistent form for the first time in his career. When you look at the quality of goalkeepers in the Premier League there are world-class goalkeepers that stand above the rest. I don’t think that Pickford has broken into the world-class ranks just yet, he’s not in the same bracket as some of the world's best like Alisson, Ederson and De Gea.“
I think most would agree with the above sentiment, with England fans especially biting your hand off if you would offer them either of those three as their potential goalkeeper.
It is worth remembering how David De Gea struggled at times in his first season at Manchester United, though he had been consistently brilliant for Atletico before moving to England, so just needed some time to adapt to the difference in style between La Liga and the Premier League.
Pickford has no real excuse, surely, but then everyone has their ups and downs, and the Everton goalkeeper still has his qualities.
“He’s a very good shot-stopper and excellent distributor of the ball but sometimes you can see he gets too emotionally tied up in the game and this affects his performance at times."
"The accuracy and distance that he has with his left foot is exceptional. He can turn defence into attack very quickly and I suspect he will put my Premier League assist record under threat in the very near future.”
Keepers needing to be good on the ball was a topic broached last time out, and such a development, or evolution, in the art of goalkeeping is very evident in the modern game. Pickford’s distribution was a key aspect of England’s World Cup 2018 campaign, alongside their recent progression in the Nations League and European Championship Qualifiers, with England coach Gareth Southgate placing a large emphasis on this aspect of play (requiring defenders to be able to play out of the back to).
And Pickford just might break that record, especially as Everton continue to improve under Carlo Ancelotti.
“At the moment I think the Everton keepers shortcomings and misfortunes if you like have been cumulative rather than spectacular. But you just get the feeling there is an air of uncertainty in his performances and you seem to be waiting for the next mistake rather than top-class performance" explains Robinson.
"I just think at times he gets too involved with the crowd and maybe the best thing to do is to not get involved and to keep your council as this passive-aggressive stance rarely works with the English media and fans alike. I know all too well what the pressures and strains of being England’s number one goalkeeper bring and it’s a very very difficult task mentally as well as to keep performing week in week out on the pitch.”
Robinson picked up on a side of Pickford’s game that has sometimes rubbed fans the wrong way, the Everton man’s often abrasive and self-effusive mannerisms which hardly endear him to others. It is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and when the thing you take away from an interview with a goalkeeper that has just made a mistake is how pleased he is with himself, that often leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth.
Unfortunately, Pickford tends to lapse into this kind of behaviour, and while it may be posturing on his part (as England’s No. 1) or his own natural aura, as Robinson says it rarely works. The pressure has indeed ramped up and will continue to do so, and being brash will only put him under an even brighter and harsher spotlight.
Would it be best for all involved if Pickford were dropped for England then? Who would be his replacement?
“The obvious choice at the moment is Dean Henderson at Sheffield United. I think he’s had an outstanding season and kept errors to a minimum. For a goalkeeper so young at only 23 he’s showing the maturity of a much older more experienced goalkeeper. His performances to get the Blades promoted to the Premier League and also now to keep them in the Premier League by some distance have been very impressive."
"I have no doubt that Chris Wilder will be wanting to keep hold of Henderson for not only another season but on a permanent deal but I think he will have his work cut out as Ole at Manchester United will certainly be looking at Henderson to be De Gea’s successor.”
How Henderson may yet answer some questions for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United is actually a compelling line of thought, especially as Henderson is ranked behind only the AC Milan “veteran wonderkid” Gianluigi Donnarumma when we took a look at goalkeeping prospects throughout Europe. The Sheffield United goalkeeper (on loan from Manchester United) is as Robinson says the obvious choice, though there is nothing wrong with going with the obvious choice if it is a good one, and Henderson has made good on his promise and potential so far.
“With Euro 2020 now being postponed for a year and the uncertainty of international fixtures who knows what will happen between now and the start of the next major tournament but at the moment Pickford is the man in charge. But there may be opportunities in friendlies and World Cup qualifiers potentially before the Euros for others to stake a major claim.”
Indeed, the uncertainty of the current footballing (and global societal) climate mirrors Pickford’s uncertain future and more. This enforced break is perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Everton man, offering him a chance to recharge and reset, while giving those that may challenge him even more time to hone their craft.
Be it Pickford or Henderson (or Nick Pope, or Tom Heaton), the battle for the England goalkeeper position may be a riveting watch in the months to come, if only because you will never know if you are in for a top-class performance, or yet another error. We can only wait and watch how the man between the sticks does.