After Jordan Pickford allowed Christian Benteke goal to squirt through his grasp, there’s been inevitable talk that England should drop him. Not so fast…
Everton’s win against Crystal Palace on Saturday typified the frustrations and concerns that surround Jordan Pickford this season. It was his error that allowed Christian Benteke to equalise, scoring his first goal in 34 Premier League matches. Yet it was also his reaction save, starfished in front of a header, that denied Benteke from making it 2-2 later on in the game.
Whilst it is easy to joke that Pickford didn’t expect Benteke’s shot to be on target, Pickford himself described the way the ball squirmed under him as “disgusting”. He blamed his studs getting stuck in the grass but it looked like he wasn’t able to get down quickly enough. On the other hand, when Benteke got his head to a deflected ball in the Everton area, Pickford reacted instinctively to deny the equaliser.
This inconsistency has led to the inevitable questions about whether Pickford is Gareth Southgate’s best pick to be England number one, not least because Dean Henderson’s performances at Sheffield United have caught the eye. The Manchester United loanee has kept nine clean sheets this season – the same number as Alisson – and has played a key part in Sheffield United’s impressive return to the Premier League. His performance against Bournemouth was no exception – an excellent save from Ryan Fraser’s volley helped keep the game level – before John Lundstram went on to win the game for the Blades. That result saw Sheffield United rise to fifth in the table.
Everton’s expected goals against of 32.66 is almost identical to Sheffield United’s of 32.11 (excluding the Manchester United game where Henderson was ineligible to play against his parent club). Yet Pickford has conceded 38 goals to Henderson’s 21. Henderson has the second highest save percentage in the league, behind Alisson, whilst only Southampton and Chelsea’s much maligned Kepa Arrizabalaga have a lower save percentage than Pickford. On the majority of goalkeeping metrics, Dean Henderson is having a much better season than Pickford.
He’s keen, too: “Hopefully I can nail down a place in the Euros squad first,” Henderson said this weekend. “Being ambitious like I am, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, I’ve got my eyes on the shirt. I’ve just got to keep performing, keep doing well and hopefully get an opportunity because you can’t prove anything without an opportunity, then see where we are in the summer.”
He is not the only English goalkeeper to look like he could threaten Pickford’s starting place. Burnley’s Nick Pope is the slightly unexpected player tied on clean sheets with Alisson and Henderson, although his save percentage is inferior to Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale. Ramsdale is, like Henderson, a Premier League debutante and despite being only 21-years-old, has made the fourth most saves of any goalkeeper this season. Ben Foster has also impressed in a Watford team that have struggled so much, although at the age of 36 is probably unlikely to feature in Southgate’s plans.
Part of the attraction of retaining Pickford is his confidence with the ball at his feet. He makes over 30 passes a match, more than any other English goalkeeper, and also has made the most accurate long balls (218) across the season. This flexibility in either playing out from the back or playing long is clearly something that Southgate appreciates in wanting a balance between a high-quality style and the pragmatism that is often necessary in high-profile international games. Henderson and Ramsdale both perhaps show their youth when it comes to their distribution, making much fewer passes and accurate long balls. In an age where being a successful goalkeeper is as much about what you do with the ball at your feet as it is the saves you make, Pickford’s playing style is as much of interest as his save percentage.
It is clear that as a goalkeeper Pickford does have a number of shortcomings. It is likely that if Henderson is not already, he will become a better goalkeeper than Pickford. At only 22, there is more than enough time for him to make the England number one spot his own. The question is whether Pickford is so deficient that having him in goal for England is more of a hindrance than a help. He has only made two errors leading to a goal this season, and whilst a goalkeeper howler might always stick in the mind for a bit longer, this is pretty much to be expected. Only Mat Ryan and Kasper Schmeichel have not made such a mistake.
Pickford’s form also has not particularly declined over the past couple of seasons. Before heading to the 2018 World Cup, he was conceding 1.53 goals per 90 minutes, compared to 1. 46 this season. His save percentage from that season would also only see him ranked mid-table in terms of goalkeepers. With this being Henderson’s first season in the Premier League, it is impossible to compare his form to assess whether his performances have been anomalous or not.
The final advantage for Pickford is his existing England performances. Dean Henderson has never had a senior international cap, which feels like a risk behind an England defence who look shaky at the best of times. Pickford’s performances at the 2018 World Cup demonstrated a player who was able to hold his nerve and up his game when it really mattered. Ultimately, even if Henderson is a better goalkeeper, Pickford’s domestic form has not faltered enough to justify dropping a player whose performance against Colombia was a stand out moment in England’s mens team’s most successful international campaign since 1990.
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