GLOVES ARE OFF
England No 1’s alarming slump gives rivals hope
‘So long as I keep performing week in, week out for Everton, I will have the chance to stay England No 1.’ JORDAN PICKFORD october 2018
He knew the requirements. It had been a whirlwind four months in which he had become a national hero after starring in a world Cup shootout and signed a bumper new everton contract, but Pickford had not lost sight of what was expected.
Consistency was demanded, improvement too. Pickford was riding high, enjoying the plaudits that came following a sparkling performance during england’s first win in Spain for 31 years, but he was ready to take it up again.
The idea he would not start the european Championship between the posts for england was unthinkable back then, but here we are.
The dip in Pickford’s form means he begins the campaign with questions to answer for club and country. Gareth Southgate handed Pickford his first major international call-up five years ago this week, selecting him for the Under 21s in a friendly against the United States at Preston. But that anniversary could be marked in Iceland on Saturday with him sitting on the sidelines.
nick Pope’s progression at Burnley has applied pressure, while the emergence of Manchester United’s Dean Henderson has added another dimension.
It would have been fascinating to see the three men work together this week at St George’s Park to understand the dynamic of the growing rivalry.
It begs the question: what has happened? Pickford’s struggles began with a cheap goal conceded against Manchester City last September, which led to Gary neville acerbically criticising him, and it gradually slithered from there. Southgate saw his troubles first-hand. england’s head coach made two scouting trips to Goodison Park at the beginning of 2020 — once in February to see everton face Crystal Palace, the second in March for a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.
In both fixtures, Pickford conceded goals he should not have done. Southgate could not attend games post-lockdown, but on TV he would have seen performances, notably in a 3-0 defeat by wolves, to give him cause for alarm.
Many will recognise Pickford as player who likes to laugh and joke, but there were times when it seemed as if his enjoyment was waning. He said in February that it is ‘part of playing for england — everyone hates you’. For someone who does not take himself too seriously, it was a candid revelation.
To give context to how the 26-year- old finished last season, the insight from Carlo Ancelotti was starkest. everton’s manager does not throw around glib words to attract headlines and nor does he highlight one of his players without good reason.
So when Ancelotti puffed out his cheeks on July 16, ahead of a home game with Aston Villa, and tried to articulate what was on his mind about Pickford — who made fewer saves and more errors than Pope and Henderson last season — you knew then that he had not been performing week in, week out.
‘I don’t know if he needs competition,’ said Ancelotti. ‘I know that he is not doing well. I spoke with him. He’s not doing well.
‘He has to be focused on himself, on his performance. Day by day he has to try to be better. I’m not so worried because he has quality. He has character but I have to say to him — and I have said to him — that he has to improve.
‘I don’t know if he does or doesn’t feel pressure. Pressure is a part of your job. You have to feel pressure but pressure can be good gasoline for your job.
‘I and everyone else at the club have total confidence in his quality. He knows this as he is critical of himself. For the quality he has — and he agrees — he has to be better. My style is to have direct communication with the players. If something is wrong I have to say clearly what is wrong.’
Southgate has long been a fan of Pickford, aware of his talent many years before he selected him for the Under 21s, but for the first time his position is vulnerable.
To change things, Pickford knows what he has to do. Following his own advice from two years ago is the place to start.