Another international break comes and so do the calls of frustration from Burnley fans who feel that their players have been unfairly left out. Ben Mee and James Tarkowski failed to make the grade but keeper Nick Pope managed to make the cut. Many people believe that Pope should be the England’s main man instead of Jordan Pickford, however, that is unlikely to be the case anytime soon.
Pope and Pickford are both fine shot-stoppers. They are brave warriors who will throw their head in the line of fire to stop the ball hitting the back of the net. Pickford’s speed when coming off his line is one advantage to having a smaller frame and it allows him to mimic the sweeper role that the likes of Ederson Moraes and Alisson Becker perform brilliantly for their clubs.
Everton play a system which encourages their full-backs to push high so it can leave the defence exposed. Burnley are less likely to commit too many men forward with Sean Dyche often preferring to retain a structure. This means that Pope will have less responsibility than Pickford when it comes to halting attacks. It also means that there is more pressure on Pickford with his kicks.
Pickford is an excellent kicker of the ball. In this era of football, a goalkeeper’s distribution is as important as his shot-stopping. Pep Guardiola revolutionised the way that people in England saw goalkeepers.
Pope is not particularly great on the ball. Burnley do not necessarily demand too much technical ability from their men between the posts; a general punt in the direction of the two strikers would be enough to get by. This wouldn’t be the case with England as manager Gareth Southgate aspires to play like an elite passing team. This means that the keeper has to be comfortable playing short-range passes to his centre backs or deep-lying midfielder, mid-range passes to his central midfielders and full-back options, and long-range balls into the forward players.
A perfect example of this would be when England scored their first goal against Spain in a friendly last year. The Three Lions broke their way through the lines to take the lead through a well-taken Raheem Sterling goal. But that was only made possible because of Pickford's excellent mid-range drive into Kane, who had dropped into a deeper position at the time, allowing for ball retention and progression. Pickford is a point of reference for his team-mates to keep the flow and momentum of period. Whether Pope would be so calm on the ball is another question.
For Burnley, Pope is primarily the shot stopper and rarely has to think about being cute with his footwork. England is a different kind of setup altogether so it would be unfair to expect the same level of ability from him. Everton do try to play a more expansive game so Pickford is also integral to their style of football. Burnley’s full backs will not be hugging the touchline; they will probably start more in-field and it will give Pope an easier short option if the Clarets do not want to go long at the first time of asking.
There is very much an argument to be had for Pope if England were still managed by Sam Alladryce. Allardyce was known for making his teams big, physical and tough to beat. He would have loved this man-mountain of a keeper. His potential pathway for England could not have been more different than the route Southgate has elected to go down, though, and that limits Pope’s England potential. Still, there are some obvious benefits to deploying Burnley’s big friendly giant.
One of Pope’s obvious strengths is his ability to claim crosses. The 6’ 4" stopper is able to utilise his height well in these situations. He often positions himself well and has the confidence to pluck the ball out of the air, relieving the pressure from his defenders. Pickford doesn’t lack the confidence to come for crosses but he does lack the stature and does not offer the same assurances to his defenders. On Friday night, one might have questioned the current national team No.1 on his lack of assertiveness on the Czech Republic’s first goal but the defending on that corner left a lot to be desired.
People might call it snobbery to pick the goalkeeper with the best technical abilities but the big teams have proven that a goalkeeper with good feet can be a real game-changer. If Southgate chooses to stick to his philosophy of playing football in this way then Pope is unlikely to ever be more than a back-up choice.