Who is England’s best goalkeeper? It’s a fair question. There’s usually an easy answer to that; it’s Gordon Banks or it’s Peter Shilton or it’s David Seaman. But, behind the scenes away from the spotlight of St George’s Park, a certain clan of keepers have been closing the gap on England’s Number One. Is Jordan Pickford going to ride the storm, or is time ticking on his spell at the top?
It’s been quite a season so far for Dean Henderson. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I’ve got my eyes on the shirt”, he told the BBC last week. And given the form he’s in for highflyers Sheffield United, he’s justified in his ambitions. Henderson has conceded just 55% of the goals Pickford has let in during the Premier League campaign so far, with the Everton shot stopper having played just one game more.
“You play the most confident keeper if you want to win the Euros. You play the best goalkeeper. Simple as that.”Chris Sutton, former England player
Henderson leads the list of prominent English Premier League goalkeepers for clean sheets, tied with Burnley’s Nick Pope on nine. Tom Heaton, now injured and almost certainly out of the Euros, dropped out of the November England squad as well, due to a different minor injury, and that let Pope in to earn his first England start in the final qualifier away in Kosovo.
Pope and Henderson have been as good as any in the league this season, but there are other options. To play the blast-from-the-past card would be to call on Watford’s Ben Foster, now 36 and without an international cap since 2014. Yet Foster has been in sharp shape this season, placing second and third as the Premier League’s most prolific keeper in sweeper clearances and aerial claims respectively. Pope leads the list for both.
Southampton can claim to have two goalkeepers called up by Gareth Southgate during his reign in charge of the national team. However, Alex McCarthy and Angus Gunn have contested the club’s Number One shirt so closely this season, that they seem to have fought themselves out of serious England contention, for the moment anyway.
Perhaps under-praised and under the radar, Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale shares a similar story to Dean Henderson. Unlike Henderson, who is on loan from Manchester United for a second season, Ramsdale was actually owned by Sheffield United. After two seasons and just two FA Cup appearances to show for it, Ramsdale moved to his current club on deadline day in January 2017. It took a few seasons dipping down the divisions on loan for Ramsdale to cement himself as Eddie Howe’s first choice, but that he now is.
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England’s Opening Game of UEFA Euro 2020
No English goalkeeper has saved more than his 86 shots so far this season, and he trails the specialist, Jordan Pickford, on passing accuracy by just a single percentage point.
With Jack Butland struggling well down the Championship table, it’s true to say that England’s group of contenders to make the Euros squad and become Number One has been evolving at a quite ferocious pace in recent years. Which of these will dislodge Jordan Pickford over the next few months and lead England into a first de facto home tournament since Euro ’96, when Gareth Southgate became the subject of vilification after that missed penalty in the semifinal? Southgate would come into question if he stuck with Pickford, who then dropped a clanger in a losing Euro final.
Football moves in mysterious ways, and the one or two surprises snuck into each and every Southgate England squad show the manager does too. No one can know who Southgate will choose as his Number One; perhaps he doesn’t know yet. But a strong, albeit unpopular, argument could be made that he should stick rather than twist.
Everton’s 25-year-old goalkeeper was at fault at the weekend, when he allowed Christian Benteke’s low shot to squirm underneath him in awkward fashion. It was Benteke’s first goal of the season, but he wouldn’t snatch his second just moments later – Pickford made himself big to thwart a point-blank header from the big Belgian.
What sets Pickford apart from the rest of the competition is his distribution. Only Alisson and Ederson among Premier League goalies can really compete with his unerring accuracy from a hoofed kick or a precise goal kick pinged to a winger. England’s win in Spain in October 2018 was largely down to Pickford’s vision and execution in setting his side on a fast counter being second-to-none.
It’s often said of Pickford that “he’s got a mistake in him”, and he does. But for England, he’s yet to be at fault for a goal, in all of 24 caps. There has been the odd mistake – dribbling into Rodrigo and nearly conceding a penalty in that same Spain game offers the best example. These are yet to lead to the concession of a goal though, unlike his often-erratic decision-making for Everton.
To stick with Pickford would be to undermine his own precedent. Gareth Southgate picks players on form and not on loyalty. But he must ask himself what is more important, upholding principles or giving yourself, your team, and your country the best chance of winning Euro 2020?
England’s goalkeeper has a confidence issue – as in, he has too much of it – but he has an intriguing personality beyond that. He may well be at fault for hyping himself up for big games in the way Joe Hart used to as England keeper, but he’s constantly communicating with teammates in matches – a healthier habit. Leaders are something the England team could do with more of. He’s quirky, and the better goalkeepers always seem to be.
Finally, he’s done it before. Jordan Pickford is the only goalkeeper to have avoided penalty shootout defeat with England. All others to have played in one have lost, but Pickford saved crucial penalties in both of the shootouts he’s been involved with so far. The Everton man has a good penalty record, as well as a reputation as an acrobatic shot stopper from open play in England games. On a number of occasions, he’s kept his concentration to made key saves in otherwise light days at work.
Dean Henderson, Nick Pope and others are knocking on the door; there’s no doubt about that. But Jordan Pickford was England’s first-choice keeper in November and remains the man to beat, as the summer edges nearer. The way that England play complements Pickford’s progressive, offensive style. He’s engaging off the pitch, and he’s engaged with play on it.
There are four games left before England begin their European Championship journey. The Sunderland academy graduate is unlikely to feature in all four… but that crucial fifth game is what those first four are building up to. Unless his club blunders pick up pace, Jordan Pickford looks set to catch and punch and parry for England in tournament football once more.