Gareth Southgate has defended goalkeeper Jordan Pickford amid fierce debate about his World Cup performances – and will keep faith with him as England’s No 1.
Concerns have been raised over Pickford, 24, who has conceded three goals in three group stage games, but has barely made a save during the tournament. Pickford was particularly criticised for his failed attempt at saving Adnan Januzaj’s long shot in England’s first defeat of the tournament, with some questioning the way he dived. Pickford reached a hand to the ball but could not stop it flying over him and in.
Belgium and Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who is six-foot-seven, laid into Pickford after the game in Kaliningrad. He insisted that Pickford, who is six-one, is too small and that a taller goalkeeper would’ve made the save easily.
But Southgate, England’s six-one manager, dismissed Courtois’s comments yesterday.
“I remember when we were talking about young goalkeepers at a conference once,” he told Talksport. “Martin Thomas – who is a brilliant coach educator now and was under-21s goalkeeping coach – was talking about the difference between a couple of goalkeepers and, size-wise, he was saying: ‘At the end of the day, we’re talking about a Cadbury’s Creme Egg between them.’
“That’s what it is. So, yes, of course some keepers are 6ft 6in, but they have attributes that they’re not so good at. And you get slightly smaller ones who are athletically better and have different skill sets. So, it’s rare to find perfection in anybody.”
Nobody could’ve been expected to predict that a debate about how much size matters would erupt in Russia. Courtois told Belgian outlet Voetball24: “The goalkeeper is 10cm smaller than me. I would have caught it. He was too busy throwing his legs in the air.” And it is an issue that has divided opinion.
When Neville Southall, one of the game’s great goalkeepers and the same height as Pickford, became involved on social media somebody even pointed out that a T-rex is six metres tall but if you stuck one in goal it would not, with its tiny arms, be able to save one in the top corner.
“Wish people would stop going on about how tall a keeper is, it’s how good he is only that counts,” Southall said. “My take on [the] goal against Pickford. [He’s] gone with [the] correct hand. Maybe. As he’s young [he’s] anticipating where [the] shot was going and maybe be a step in as well. Anticipating gives you time to step and dive. His other shot stopping just needs to angle [the] ball away.” In ITV’s television analysis the night of the match, pundit Gary Neville, a five-foot-11 former right-back, said when analysing Pickford’s attempt at stopping Januzaj’s goal: “His feet are off the ground when he’s jumping. He goes with his wrong hand. It’s just a bit weird.” Fellow pundit Lee Dixon, a five-10 former right-back, added: “I’m not a goalkeeping coach or anything but I think when the ball is struck he’s got to go with his other hand. I texted a friend of mine who is a goalkeeping coach and he said he should have gone with his right hand.
“We’re a little bit worried about him maybe before the game and I think tonight is the first time he’s been tested and he pushed a lot out in front of the goal.”
Southall was asked what he made of the comments. “As soon as the game ended I turned the TV off,” he replied.
Pickford’s England team-mate Marcus Rashford weighed in yesterday.
“The way he performs and his body, he’s adapted everything to the way he is, physically,” the five-11 striker said. “He’s got himself this far so I don’t think you can really say that about him.
“He’s a top keeper and there have been plenty of top keepers who have been considered not to be quite big enough compared to other keepers but it doesn’t really hold them back.”
Who would play in goal, handed the opportunity to establish themselves as England’s new No 1, has been one of Southgate’s toughest decisions.
Pickford had only three caps at the start of the World Cup and was competing against Stoke City’s Jack Butland, six-five, to start at the tournament. Southgate ushered out 75-cap Joe Hart, six-five, without a single, obvious standout replacement.
England’s manager opted for Pickford, eventually, because of his feet, rather than his hands; choosing the Everton keeper due to his superior distribution suiting the way he wanted to play out from the back, also favouring centre-backs who are able to pass the ball rather than older-school enforcers.
Pickford has not looked confident so far in the tournament. After the Belgium defeat he walked through the post-match Fifa mixed-zone and declined requests from journalists for interviews: usually a sign a player is not entirely happy with something.
Pickford is said to be single-minded about football, largely not thinking about much else. In England’s training sessions he has been pumped up and professionally aggressive.
“I’m really pleased with his performances,” Southgate said. “He knows the belief I have in him. He is an important fit for the way we want to play.”