There were no new names in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the upcoming friendly against the Republic of Ireland and Nations League group games with Belgium and Iceland.
With no additions to discuss, the focus has been drawn to the internal competition for places. Trent Alexander-Arnold or Kyle Walker at right-back? Ben Chilwell or Kieran Trippier on the left? Phil Foden or Mason Mount in midfield? Raheem Sterling or Jadon Sancho on the right of attack? Marcus Rashford or Jack Grealish on the left?
Those decisions, and many others for outfield players, are dependent on a number of factors, including what formation Southgate chooses and will also have to align with the rotation necessary to fulfil three matches in seven days during a demanding period.
“Managing the three games is a challenge,” Southgate said in Thursday’s press conference. “The friendly, in particular, gives us an opportunity to look at players, which we’ve managed to do in the last couple of months.”
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Since taking over as England manager in September 2016, Southgate has, to his credit, tended to reward club form with international call-ups. In general, up-and-coming players haven’t been forced to wait on the sidelines for long, while so-called “big club bias” has not been an issue.
However, while Southgate can rightly be proud of his record of promoting on merit, there is one area of selection where he can perhaps be accused of prioritising loyalty over form.
Jordan Pickford has won all of his 28 England caps under Southgate and, despite only having three caps at the time, was his undisputed No1 in the run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and to third place at the 2019 Nations League finals.
While performing consistently at Everton, the likes of Joe Hart, Jack Butland and Tom Heaton never represented a strong challenge for the No1 jersey. Even when mistakes arose and his performances for his club wavered he kept his place for England.
But after a high-profile mistake resulted in a serious injury for Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk in October’s Merseyside derby, his 120-match run in Everton’s goal was brought to a halt at the weekend. Pickford was forced to watch from the bench as Robin Olsen played in the 2-1 defeat by Newcastle on Sunday and pundits began, once again, to question him.
Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti insisted there was nothing more behind the decision than mere rotation and Pickford will return against Manchester United on Saturday. Like Ancelotti, Southgate has stuck by his goalkeeper.
“When people say I’ve been loyal to him,” he explained on Thursday. “He’s deserved that, his performances have been excellent for us, so that’s not been a difficult decision for me.
“We have some competition for places, but I’d have to say there’s nobody that I think is challenging seriously at the moment to push him out of that position.”
Is Southgate’s assertion true? And how easy is it for goalkeepers to challenge seriously when they are more dependent than players in outfield positions on their team’s overall performances?
Nick Pope is undoubtedly the closest to taking Pickford’s place in England’s team long-term. The Burnley goalkeeper is likely to start Thursday’s friendly against Ireland, but no matter how he performs, he is just as likely to revert back to his usual role as substitute when it comes to the competitive games against Belgium and Iceland.
Dean Henderson is currently the third-choice goalkeeper. The 23-year-old built his reputation during a two-year loan spell with Sheffield United, but his return to parent club Manchester United this season has harmed his international hopes, as he plays second fiddle to David de Gea.
Alex McCarthy, Fraser Forster, Marcus Bettinelli and Angus Gunn have all been called up under Southgate, but none have come close to staking a claim.
A look over the Premier League statistics from the start of the 2018/19 season highlights Pickford’s shortcomings. Over that period Pickford has made nine errors leading to a goal, more than any other goalkeeper, while he also tops the list for numbers of errors leading to shots on seven.
Only Watford’s Ben Foster (123) and Brighton’s Mat Ryan (121) have conceded more goals than Pickford’s 111 in 82 matches.
Of those 111 goals conceded, Pickford should have conceded 102.53, according to Opta’s Expected Goals on Target (xGOT) model.
Over the same period, Burnley’s Pope has conceded 62 goals from an xGOT of 56.04, while Henderson, during his 2019/20 season with Sheffield United, conceded 33 goals from an xGOT of 41.35, making him the only one of the three to outperform what was expected.
For comparison, Southampton’s Alex McCarthy has conceded 91 from 86.15 xGOT and Aaron Ramsdale has 72 goals shipped from 71.38 xGOT while at Bournemouth and Sheffield United. Karl Darlow, who has been praised for his recent displays for Newcastle, has conceded 11 from an xGOT of 11.39 this season.
Pickford’s ability with the ball at his feet is harder to quantify through data, though, and that is undoubtedly one of the reasons Southgate has stuck by his man, coupled with strong showings at England’s two most recent tournaments.
The truth is that, with his club place guaranteed by Ancelotti and his international spot reserved by Southgate, his form is of secondary importance.
With the trust of those that matter secured, don’t expect to see Pickford sitting on the bench much beyond Thursday’s match against Ireland.