Five months ago Jordan Pickford walked out at Anfield into the eye of a storm. His form for Everton had been poor for several months. He had been briefly dropped in November by Carlo Ancelotti, ending a run of 120 consecutive league games. Plenty of Everton fans wanted him gone. Plenty of England fans felt the same way.
Plus, it is fair to say Pickford and Liverpool had history. Back in 2018 his 96th-minute howler had gifted a winning goal to Divock Origi. Earlier last season a reckless challenge on Virgil van Dijk at Goodison had brought death threats from Liverpool fans and turned him into a figure of public ridicule. Now, with the resentment still simmering, at the lowest point of his professional career, at a ground that held bad memories, there would be no hiding place.
Against the defending champions Pickford was brilliant. He made key saves from Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, foiled Mohamed Salah when he was clean through on goal and walked away with a clean sheet as Everton won at Anfield for the first time in 22 years. And perhaps in retrospect this was the point at which things began to pick up again for Pickford; the point at which he reminded us what he was made of - not in terms of his quality but perhaps in terms of his resilience.
Pickford is one of those goalkeepers who seem to thrive when the going is at its toughest. When the stakes are raised, Pickford raises himself accordingly. Four games into Euro 2020 he has four clean sheets and a decent claim as the standout goalkeeper of the tournament. Once again England's ultimate tournament animal has come to play.
Going into England's quarter-final against Ukraine Pickford is the only goalkeeper yet to have conceded a goal (with the exception of Salvatore Sirigu, who made a ceremonial two-minute appearance against Wales). Partly, of course, this is down to a relative lack of work: Pickford has had only six saves to make, with a total xG of just 0.6.
Even if England have protected Pickford brilliantly, the saves he has made - from Timo Werner and Kai Havertz against Germany, Stephen O'Donnell against Scotland - have been not just proficient but crucially timed.
Moreover, and less measurably, tournament goalkeepers can establish a tone and a mindset, raise standards, create and reinforce a winning mentality. And the ear-bashing Pickford gave his defenders in the closing minutes against Germany suggests that England are beginning to louden themselves to Pickford’s pitch.
Pickford talks about needing to be “in the moment” for England. Perhaps this is an admission that he is the sort of keeper who thrives off buzz, who will always be prone to highs and lows in his career. Over the grind of a 38-game season the gulf between his best and his worst will leave him vulnerable to criticism. But his ability to find that extra level, those extra emotional gears, can be an invaluable asset in tournament football, where outsized goalkeepers can often have an outsized impact.
This has been particularly noticeable in this tournament, which has been punctuated by numerous goalkeeping errors from Unai Simón, Martin Dubravka and Kasper Schmeichel. Pickford, by contrast, has stayed blemish-free under the highest pressure: passing soundly, punching well and choosing the right moments to venture out of his goal. In terms of his decisions, if not in terms of his decibels, Pickford seems to be more selective with his aggression.
Despite the varying claims of Aaron Ramsdale, Nick Pope and Dean Henderson, you get the feeling Gareth Southgate has never seriously considered displacing Pickford. Indeed, back in November when Pickford was at his lowest ebb, he reaffirmed Pickford's status as first choice, citing the relative paucity of alternatives. Southgate was one of the first to call Pickford in the aftermath of the Van Dijk controversy, checking in on his mental health and offering his support.
Perhaps it was a calculated gamble on Southgate’s part, not just on Pickford’s own form and fitness but on the malleability of public opinion. In any case Southgate’s first instinct in these situations has always been to trust his eyes and his gut: to reward players as much for their form and conduct on England duty as for what they do in club colours.
Pickford, for his part, has handsomely rewarded Southgate’s faith: ending the season strongly, making subtle technical adjustments (“one-percenters,” he calls them), availing himself liberally of psychology and sports science. He cites Rafael Nadal’s ability to remain focused in key points as a particular inspiration.
Physically he has put on muscle mass in the last couple of years to add power to his lower body. This has come despite a self-professed love of food, with a particular weakness for a gruesome-sounding Sunderland delicacy called a “doner kebab pizza with garlic dip”.
Perhaps the real lesson is one of loyalty. One sees it, too, in Southgate's continuing faith in players such as Raheem Sterling, Kieran Trippier and Harry Maguire, all of whom have remained in favour despite absences or loss of form at club level. In a way it is an investment in human spirit: a deep-seated conviction, in the face of all short-term evidence, that things will come good in the end. - Guardian