As the shot from Daniel Podence rolled towards the Everton goalline, it was tempting to wonder – in a covid-free parallel universe – how Jordan Pickford might alternatively have been spending Sunday 12 July 2020.
As the ball squirmed between Pickford’s legs, as he scrambled to scrape the ball off the line like a man trying to salvage the remains of his doner kebab from the pavement, it was impossible to ignore the fact that – with all due respect to Wolves and Everton – this tragicomedy could have been unfolding on a far bigger stage. Specifically, how might England fans feel about Pickford – this Pickford – stepping out at Wembley Stadium in the final of Euro 2020?
The brutally honest answer is that with this Pickford, England might not have come close to the final in the first place. After all, it has been a rotten few months for one of the stars of the 2018 World Cup: the close shave at Molineux merely the latest in a litany of mistakes that seems to have exposed a particular weakness to low shots at his near post. Throw in the occasional tendency to misjudge the flight of crosses, the fine form of Nick Pope at Burnley and Dean Henderson at Sheffield United, and with the Euros deferred for a year Gareth Southgate has an intriguing dilemma on his hands. Namely: is Pickford simply a fine goalkeeper in poor form? Or is something else happening here?
The answer is a little more complex than it looks. Partly this is because of the nature of modern goalkeeping itself: a trade that has proven stubbornly resistant to the great data revolution of the past decade. Save percentages, passing stats and expected goals against will only ever offer a fraction of the picture. The rest is neither art nor science: an intangible netherworld of voodoo and blind faith that is most evident in the laughably imprecise goalkeeping analysis you often see on television. “He’s got to do better there,” a legendary midfielder will mutter over a slow-motion replay of a shot creeping over the line.
Similarly, the vocabulary we use to assess the craft as a whole often raises more questions than it answers. “A keeper should be dominant,” Gary Neville observed on Sky Sports the season before last, which when you think about it can mean whatever you want: making spectacular saves or none at all, venturing out of your goal or staying put, constantly shouting or broodily silent. Ditto that oft-evoked term “authority”. And ultimately, all this feeds the idea that the goalkeeper is not simply a last line of defense but a mood: a facilitator, a spiritual guru, the reassuring background music that puts a team at ease.
Back in April, during a lockdown Q&A with Everton fans, and sporting a scraggy root-vegetable beard, Pickford offered his own take on the subject. Asked to name his favourite game in an Everton shirt, he plumped for the 2-1 win at Newcastle in December, but the really interesting part was his reasoning. “I thought I was rock solid,” he said. “I dictated the game, from my point of view. I showed my character.”
Rock solid, dictating the game, showing your character: for Pickford, these are the ideal traits a goalkeeper should embody. And quite apart from the questions it raises – how exactly does a goalkeeper “dictate” and is that even a good thing? – perhaps this explains some of the more exuberant and pre-emptive elements of his game. The way he attacks crosses. The way he often advances instinctively out of goal and leaves himself stuck in no man’s land. Even the way he saves the ball like he’s offering it outside for a scrap.
And so this is a function not simply of technique but personality. Being a goalkeeper – and in particular, the sort of goalkeeper who “dictates” – is a lot like playing a character. Once the mask slips, it can be hard to replace. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was Joe Hart, the man whose England place Pickford ended up taking. The technical flaws could be addressed and drilled. But the persona, the aura of dominance, the white-hot glow that briefly made him one of the world’s best goalkeepers: that was gone for ever. Two years after being dropped from the England squad, Hart is without a club.
Pickford is by no means guaranteed to suffer a similar fate. He is 26, a far better passer than any of his rivals and an outstanding penalty saver to boot. Indeed, his game might have been designed for international tournaments, where the emotional pitch is higher, the press less frenzied and goalkeepers allowed more time on the ball. But to get that far, he will need to improve fast.
Perhaps the real story here is of a position evolving at a spectacular rate, whose demands are unrecognisable from even a decade ago. Even the greatest shot-stoppers must also be auxiliary playmakers, capable both of lightning reflexes and supernatural calmness, physical dominance and technical refinement. Accordingly, there are probably only around half a dozen truly great keepers at the moment: Jan Oblak, Marc-André ter Stegen, Alisson, Ederson, Thibaut Courtois, perhaps the resurgent Manuel Neuer.
Meanwhile, Southgate’s choices are more constricted. Pickford is in a rut; Henderson a young and improving all-rounder who had a horrible European Under-21 championship last summer; Pope a fine but limited keeper best deployed if you are planning on facing a lot of shots, which England aren’t. None is ideal. And whichever one Southgate plumps for will tell as much about his vision for this England side as it does about the players themselves.
The Guardian Sport