Following weeks of speculation about who England manager Gareth Southgate should turn to as his number 1 goalkeeper at this summer’s World Cup, he was given an opportunity to see how one of them would fare against a Dutch side who had missed out in qualification for the tournament but still represent a tough challenge on the international stage.
Having opted to choose Jordan Pickford for the friendly against Holland Southgate was keen to push Pickford’s distribution and technical ability with the ball at his feet in particular when justifying his decision prior to the match.
With Pickford having started only one previous match for England – a 0-0 draw with European powerhouse Germany – where he put in an impressive performance, it was generally accepted that this friendly was a make or break moment for the 24 year old Everton keeper if he wanted to keep alive his hopes of starting for the Three Lions in Russia this summer.
With so much pressure on this one performance it would have been easy to expect a nervous Pickford coming into the game; a game where he needed to display that he could handle the pressure of the international stage and put in a calm, confident performance to help his England team mates settle into the game and grow to trust him.
But Pickford quickly put those nervous expectations to bed and set about his work, showing why he believes he should be England’s number one.
The game itself was a pretty boring affair, neither goalkeeper had lots to do and generally the game was played at a slow pace around the middle of the park but when Pickford was called on his position and safe hands meant that he dealt with what he had to with relative ease throughout the game.
His communication with his defence was also evident, you could see him constantly talking to his defenders without and in the latter parts of the game when some of his team mates were starting to switch off from their defensive duties he certainly wasn’t shy or nervous about letting them know what he thought – seen screaming at them to get back and pick up their men.
What really stood out throughout the game however was those skills that Southgate had picked out before the match, playing behind a back three of Stones, Walker and Gomez although Gomez was substituted for Harry Maguire after 10 minutes due to injury.
These 3 defenders – I can’t bring myself to call Kyle Walker a centre back – certainly aren’t the centre backs that England is famed for – big, strong dominant centre half’s like John Terry and Tony Adams of old, they had been picked by Southgate to play football and utilise those attributes of Pickfords over the 90 minutes under the Amsterdam lights.
Pickford’s quick sidewinder release would have been picked up by Dutch manager Ronald Koeman in their pre-match brief which worked well to give Pickford and his defensive team mates space to play themselves out of defence with some slick football time and time again.
At times it was like watching Manchester City as Pickford would fizz passes out to his defensive colleagues with power and precision, often breaking the lines of play and allowing England to turn defence into attack quickly – if they had wanted to at least.
What was most impressive was the young keepers willingness to take the ball whilst under pressure and to play it out to team mates who had Dutch players closing them down, there was a sense of trust between the defence and their keeper and vice versa.
This is a England style we as fans aren’t used to watching, so there were a few heart in mouth moments – not least when Pickford decided to show off his faint skills and drop a shoulder before rounding an on-rushing Dutch forward and some fans on social media felt that he was trying just a little bit too hard to demonstrate his distribution and comfort with the ball – but would the same have been said had we been watching Ederson or Ter Stegen?
Southgate himself came out at the end of the game and said that this is something that is a high risk, high reward type of football and something that England fans will have to get used to if we want to play this kind of expansive game.
If England want to play this style of football Pickford is the man to do it, as backed up by Shay Given and Rachel Finnis-Brown on Football Focus earlier today.
Was it a perfect performance from Pickford? No, but it’s easy to be critical over 90 minutes watching from afar. When Gomez went down injured early on with the ball in Pickford’s hands, should he have put the ball out of play rather than trying to launch an attack? Of course he should, he was lucky this time that the ball ended up back in his hands after a failed dutch attack – but these tiny details will come with experience.
Rather than looking for tiny holes in his performance, lets praise a young keeper coming into the England setup and not just putting in a second very assured performance – but potentially being the start of a new style of English football at international level which has for so long been missing any sign of an identity.