2 goals down & subsiding to Belgium’s blistering pace, the England team that were plotting their route to World Cup glory just a few days earlier now looked vulnerable. As the array of Belgian attacking talent strung together a counter-attacking clinic playing 7 forward passes that started on the edge of their own box. Thomas Meuneir was posed to volley home his 2nd of the game but for a strong right hand from the fully extended England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, which is befitting of the Sunderland lads tournament as a whole.
Amidst the ridicule of England’s goalkeeping options, the weight of the country’s expectations were on the shoulders of Pickford- particularly as he emerged as Gareth Southgate’s first choice with the number 1 jersey. Coming up against Tunisia, the nation were keen to discover how Pickford would coexist with the defensive unit of John Stones, Harry Maguire & Kyle Walker after a season of defensive instability at Everton. Pickford saw little action in the first game, aside from a Ferjani Sassi penalty- which he came agonisingly close to saving. While the English celebrated a late victory, a few nerves were settled in regards to Pickford’s inexperience on such a big stage as it was soon realised the 24 year-old commanded his defence like a seasoned veteran.
The 6-1 romping of Panama set the record for England’s biggest ever win at a World Cup & the trend having little to do consisted for Pickford. His distribution was called upon & his passing range was at times hit & miss as it was for Everton in his debut season for the Blues. As football is a game of many opinions, fingers began pointing at Pickford as detractors unjustly put him at fault for Panama’s goal- which was a product of a well delivered set-piece.
Criticism of Pickford reached it’s pinnacle in England’s final group-stage fixture against Belgium, where the loser of the game effectively had an easier route in the knockout stages. Changes were aplenty for both sides, fielding weakened teams. Pickford looked less convincing with the alternative trio of Phil Jones, Gary Cahill & Stones in front of him despite his commanding aura. 10 minutes into the 2nd half, the media jumped the gun as Adnan Januzaj curled one into the top corner, putting the Belgians in front. Regardless of the easier 2nd place finish as consequence of this, Pickford automatically became a huge talking point- from his height, to his chosen hand to dive with, England looked to have their readymade scapegoat for when things went awry, similar to Robert Green in 2010. The failure to flag up the poor defensive efforts of stand-in players Danny Rose & Fabian Delph in the lead up to the goal, only added fuel to Pickford’s fire ahead of the knockout stage.
Pickford was in inspiring form for the Colombia clash, producing arguably the best save of the World Cup as Uribe caught the ball sweetly from 30 yards out prompting an acrobatic save from the England number 1 who diverted the ball over the bar with a strong hand. The following corner would result in another headed goal from Barcelona centre-half Yerry Mina, which could have been avoided if not for the careless header by Kieran Tripper which put the ball just beyond Pickford’s reach.
The extra-time that followed was rather eventful as a dreaded shoot-out became a reality for England- all eyes were on the man the nation had criticised days before. Both sides traded blow for blow as the score read 3 apiece. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was spared blushes as his missed penalty was atoned for thanks to an extended left hand from Pickford which set Eric Dier up for England’s first shootout victory at a World Cup. During media duties following the game, Pickford was keen to address issues such as his height & size: “I’m not the biggest but I’m quick & I’ve got agility”. He closed out the interview asking a member of the England technical staff: “have I got doping?”. An unsurprising outcome after such a high-level performance.
Gareth Southgate’s side progressed onto the quarter-finals cocksure that a place in the final lay in wait for them, & the quarter-final performance against Sweden certainly backed up the hype. England played free-flowing football looking dominant throughout. Pickford was as equally strong whenever challenged, producing a wonderful save low to his left from a Marcus Berg header, which at the time kept England 1 up. Pickford was called into action again as Sweden were now 2 up & applying forward pressure. After manipulating the ball between players well, Viktor Claesson looked to finish off a phase of Swedish momentum but Pickford produced yet another fantastic diving save- followed by yet another denial of Berg in the closing stages, emphatically holding onto the clean sheet & soaring into the semi-finals with the wind in his sails.
After the performance that earned the man of the match accolade against Sweden, Pickford had little to do during England’s semi-final exit at the hands of Croatia. The England boys seemed to exert all their energy in the first half an hour of the game & fell short of holding onto their lead as Ivan Perisic scored late on to take the game to extra-time. No blame attached to Pickford, his adrenaline ran high throughout the entirety of the 120 minutes, producing a wonderful kneed save from Mario Mandzukic as Perisic wrecked havoc amongst a tiring English defence. Perisic & Mandzukic would combine yet again for what would prove to be the winner in the twilight of extra-time, as the Juventus forward beared down on goal from a tight angle, firing across Pickford & denying England that coveted place in the final.
England succumbed to a 4th place finish after being out done by the technical prowess of Eden Hazard & co in the 3rd place play-off, however, the team’s reputation was bolstered by their best showing at a major tournament in recent years. Pickford, for all his expletive outcries & passionate gestures came out as highly praised of them all, as all corners of the globe now knew the game of the 24 year-old who learnt his trade at Sunderland & has had as many as 6 loans to different clubs in the process.
His place is now cemented as England’s best goalkeeper & will be for many years to come. A huge season lies in wait for Everton in the 2018/19 season & if his World Cup performances are an indicator, the Toffees are in safe hands.
Max Carlyle (@Max_Carlyle)