Gareth Southgate has been unwavering in his backing of Jordan Pickford as England’s first-choice goalkeeper since the 2018 World Cup.
The reasoning has been simple: to the England coach, there has been a lack of serious challengers to the Everton goalkeeper for what many outside observers — if not Southgate — see as England’s problem position heading into the delayed European Championship starting in June.
The situation, however, has changed somewhat and the upcoming World Cup qualifiers could play a role in forcing Southgate’s hand.
Pickford will miss England’s games against San Marino, Albania and Poland after sustaining an abdominal injury in a Premier League match against Burnley on March 13. At the same time, two rivals have emerged as reliable alternatives for Southgate and might get three chances in the next week to stake their claim to be if not a permanent replacement for Pickford then an option for specific games depending on the opponent.
One is Nick Pope, who plays for Burnley and is more of a pure shot-stopper — an exercise at which he gets plenty of practice at his relegation-threatened team.
The other is a younger and a slightly more intriguing option in the 24-year-old Dean Henderson, who is in his first year in Manchester United’s senior squad and is starting to put pressure on David De Gea to be the team’s No. 1. Indeed, Henderson has played the last six games for United — and performed solidly — while De Gea returned to his native Spain following the birth of his first child.
At his squad announcement last week, Southgate didn’t say who he would be choosing to replace Pickford but it will most likely be Pope, who was the understudy at the 2018 World Cup and since then. England hosts San Marino on Thursday.
“Nick is in excellent form,” Southgate said, “and whenever he has played for us has been a very calm presence.”
Southgate did raise the prospect, however, of the team changing its approach depending who is in goal.
“Not all of the goalkeepers have the same sort of attributes so we have to adapt,” he said. “That is the same with outfield players — certain players in certain positions change the profile of that role and we have to be pragmatic in how we do that.
“The most important thing for goalkeepers is to keep the ball out of the net and sometimes that is a much-overlooked quality.”
That raises the eventual possibility of Southgate playing Pickford in the games where England is likely to dominate possession and territory, using his ball-playing ability to help instigate attacks. Henderson and Pope aren’t as accomplished with the ball at their feet and don’t have the same passing range.
And then, for games where England might have to defend more or could be on the back foot, Southgate could choose to play more of a secure shot-stopper in Pope or Henderson, with Pickford more likely to make a blunder or have a reckless moment.
That would be quite a novel approach from Southgate, with the likes of France (Hugo Lloris), Germany (Manuel Neuer), Spain (De Gea) and Italy (Gianluigi Donnarumma) having clear first-choice No. 1s.
Pickford, who starred for England — particularly in the last-16 win over Colombia in a penalty shootout — at the World Cup, has been dropped for some games this season by Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti, with backup Robin Olsen being preferred.
Notable mistakes from Pickford came against Leicester in January, when he let in a speculative effort from Youri Tielemans for an equalizer, and when he rushed out to cause Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk what is likely to be a season-ending knee injury in the Merseyside derby in October.
However, Pickford had been in encouraging form over the last month before picking up the injury against Burnley. It is unclear for how long it will keep him out.
It at least gives Southgate an opportunity to see Pope or Henderson in a meaningful, competitive match rather than a friendly, even if the keeper selected is unlikely to be too busy against San Marino and Albania.