The 25-year-old's cocksure attitude has been lauded as one of his strengths but it has bordered on misplaced arrogance at times this season and it's a trait that is becoming a liability.
It’s often said that it takes a special breed to be a goalkeeper and that some of the best have a mad streak in them that makes them perform feats that most players cannot. Among the pantheon of Goodison greats, Neville Southall was among some of the more eccentric to have ever pulled on an Everton jersey but whatever set him apart psychologically from all the keepers of his day that he eclipsed, he usually channelled it into mind-boggling brilliance on the field rather than madcap risk-taking and clownery.
Jordan Pickford would do well to take a leaf out of Southall’s book as he — hopefully — takes stock of his performance at Newcastle yesterday, one that stands out as his worst since joining Everton 18 months ago. That it was also peppered with a couple of outstanding moments to go with the errors, was, perhaps, also a neat summation of the current incumbent between the Toffees’ goalposts.
Blessed with undoubted talent, the Washington-born stopper has the ability to become one of the world’s best goalkeepers, a fact reflected in the Blues shelling out £30m for his services and by Garett Southgate installing him as England’s first-choice goalkeeper at age 24 for a run that took the Three Lions all the way to the World Cup semi-finals last summer.
He has also been largely consistent, saved plenty of points on his own and had some phenomenal moments in his comparatively short time at Everton and will, no doubt, continue to do so.
What he currently lacks, however, is the maturity to reach the elite level and there have been suspicions this season that Pickford’s exploits in Russia, which included penalty shootout heroics against Colombia in the round of 16 and, arguably, one of the most under-appreciated saves in the history of the tournament in the same game, went to his head somewhat.
In some respects, that cocksure, unfazed attitude has been lauded as one of his strengths and, in a high-stakes era when so few players play with a smile on their face, he can bring some much-needed levity but it has bordered on misplaced arrogance at times this season and it's a trait that can quickly become a liability.
His stoppage-time calamity in the Anfield derby where that cockiness was the direct cause of Everton suffering a hugely psychologically damaging defeat should have been the nadir of Pickford’s season. His first mistake was not to own the error — rather than admit he had tried to catch the ball, he tried to pass it off as an attempt to push it over the crossbar (which he should have done but didn't) — but his lapses in yesterday’s game show that he hasn’t learned.
Against Newcastle, he allowed the occasion to get the better of him; barracked by the Barcodes’ fans because of his Mackem past, Pickford played up to the role of pantomime villain with fist-pumps to the stands after escaping a red card for pulling down Salomon Rondon and saving the resulting penalty, then stuck his tongue out to the television cameras following a let-off when he was caught too far off his goal line and Rondon just missed punishing him for it.
That impudence didn’t end up costing Everton on that occasion but it was an error in judgement of a cross that led to penalty incident in the first place and his apparent refusal to simply push Miguel Almiron’s swerving drive over his crossbar or away to the side led to him parrying the ball straight back into the danger zone in front of goal where, as well know too well, his defenders are usually negligent in following up to claim any second ball. Ayoze Perez, meanwhile, did his job and was rewarded with a routine finish that cancelled out the Blues’ 2-0 advantage.
That the error that ruined what should have been a hard-fought goalless draw against Liverpool last December is being repeated casts doubt on Pickford’s development but it is also a serious knock against Everton’s coaching staff. It behooves the manager and the club’s goalkeeping coach to impress upon the player the need to keep things simple; to insist that safety-first be the mantra rather than trying to pad one’s goalkeeping resume with difficult feats. That his excesses aren’t being curbed does not reflect well on Marco Silva.
Perhaps because he lacks height — he is the same height as Southall — Pickford appears to have been instructed to stay on his line at set-pieces wherever possible rather that dominating his six-yard box and that, too, is contributing to the team’s infamous vulnerability from dead-ball situations. (Is it short-term-ism or was he better about trying to claim crosses under Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce?)
It used to be said that keepers don't usually mature until they are around 30 but that seems to be changing these days. David de Gea, for one, was winning Manchester United’s Player of the Year award at age 24 and has excelled at a consistent level for years; Manuel Neuer has been at the top of the game since his mid-20s as well; Marc-André ter Stegen, Jan Oblak and Alisson Becker are only a year older than Pickford and Ederson is the same age, 25.
The truth is that Pickford cannot point to age as an excuse; he has to curtail the riskier elements of his game or he faces losing not only his place in the Everton side but his first-choice status with his country as well. Joe Hart’s days as England’s number one were numbered as soon as it became apparent that he was unreliable and Pickford must work to ensure he doesn’t go the same way.
Jordan is a better goalkeeper than Hart and, on his day, arguably one of the best in the Premier League but, as it currently stands, he is the top-flight goalkeeper responsible for more errors leading to goals than any other. That has led to calls from some frustrated fans for him to be cast off and sold this summer, but while a game or two on the bench for club or country wouldn't do him any harm, it is massively premature to be writing him off so soon.
Pickford has the ability; now he needs to grow up. It’s all there in his arsenal, but if he can’t maintain his discipline, he will lose his defenders’ faith and, ultimately, that of the manager and the fans.