As a measure of how much Jordan Pickford’s performances have flown under the radar during this World Cup, it turns out the England goalkeeper is so underrated that three of his best saves haven’t even been recognised.
Yes, there was plenty of praise for the sharp reflex stop from Iran’s Sardar Azmoun in England’s opener in Qatar. And true, everyone applauded when Pickford kept his side level during their last-16 match against Senegal by pushing away a shot from Boulaye Dia.
But were you aware Pickford made an even better save against Senegal, springing off his line and using the top of his left arm to deflect a close-range effort from Ismaïla Sarr over the bar? Or that he got a touch to a cross-shot from Dan James during England’s 3-0 win over Wales? Or, perhaps most impressive, that it was his fingertips that took a venomous, goalbound drive from Christian Pulisic on to the bar during the 0-0 draw with the USA?
The answer is “no” if you happen to be one of the officials from those games. Three times Pickford saved England by turning efforts behind; three times England were awarded a goal-kick when their opponents should have been given a corner.
In fairness, these things happen at lightning speed. Watching from the press box, I thought all three of those shots had flown off target. But Pickford knew. He was particularly adamant on the save from Pulisic. Nothing was going to get past him and what was unclear to the naked eye soon became apparent when England’s goalkeeping coach, Martyn Margetson, took a closer look at the footage.
It must have been a moment of huge personal satisfaction for Margetson, who played for Manchester City and Huddersfield, among others, and was capped once by Wales, in 2004. He once made headlines by critiquing Pickford’s technique during a television appearance, noting how the Everton goalkeeper sometimes had his hands too low when preparing to face a shot, but the pair clearly work well together on the training ground.
“There’s a really good understanding from Martyn on what Jordan needs, getting him in the right habits and the right behaviours every day to get the best out of him,” Gareth Southgate said last week. “That relationship is a healthy one.
“But as in every situation it’s the player that deserves the credit. They are the ones that apply what’s being worked on. You are trying to guide them in a certain way and teach them. But it’s having players that are open to learning and wanting to improve that is the key to their development.”
It is clear why Southgate has stuck with Pickford, who will win his 50th cap in the quarter-final against France on Saturday, through some challenging moments. The head coach has never had cause to regret his decision to drop Joe Hart and name Pickford as his No 1 at the 2018 World Cup.
Pickford excelled during his first major tournament, brilliantly saving a penalty from Colombia’s Carlos Bacca in the last 16 when England won a shootout for the first time in 22 years. He scored and saved a penalty against Switzerland when England secured third place in the Nations League in 2019. He went through wobbles at club level, losing his place at Everton during the 2020-21 season, but international football has always brought the best out of him.
Pressure does not seem to affect Pickford when he puts on an England shirt. He has faced criticism for his exuberance and slightly wild air in the past. Within the game, questions have been asked over whether he received the right level of coaching when he was younger. As one goalkeeping expert puts it, though, something happens to the 28-year-old during tournaments. His concentration levels, occasionally an issue during the week-to-week grind at Everton, go up. There is more maturity to his performances; a sense that he is not going to be the one who lets England down.
That was never more evident than when they reached the Euro 2020 final. Using a psychologist made Pickford calmer. He was more restrained, conceding twice in seven games, and was desperately unlucky to be on the losing side against Italy in the final after saving two penalties in the shootout.
“He’s been exceptional in the shootouts we’ve had and that gives you confidence,” Southgate said. “Sometimes, the biggest thing is dealing with being the England No 1. That comes with a different level of scrutiny. He’s dealt with that impeccably.”
The message was clear: Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope have it all to do to dislodge Pickford. Southgate’s view is that England’s World Cup hopes are in safe hands. No doubt Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé will test that belief on Saturday night, but Southgate will hope Pickford’s saves that never were are a sign of things to come.