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Is Jordan Pickford still England’s best goalkeeper?

A perfect case of statistics vs the eye test here

England v Spain - UEFA Nations League A Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Using stats from firm “World in Motion”, Sky Sports recently tried to evaluate whether Jordan Pickford should retain his number 1 shirt for England in international play. As someone who evaluates the entire sport through analytic numbers, I was intrigued by the study and it is a worthwhile read.

Analytics for outfield players, especially attackers, are getting really good and really useful. Because of their attacking contributions in the modern game, fullbacks are also pretty easy to evaluate analytically. Center backs and keepers? They are hard. So much of what centerhalves and goalkeepers do is system based, for instance, does a keeper play a low number of balls to his defenders to play out of the back because he is uncomfortable handling the ball or because his manager wants him to belt it long? Is a defender really good defensively or does he simply not have to face many challenges from attackers? (Hello John Stones.) How do evaluate the quality of a keeper who is constantly under assault, as Pickford has been for most of his top flight tenure?

The results of the analytics Sky uses suggest that of the seven English goalkeepers in the Premier League, Pickford is the least qualified to where the number 1 shirt (see overall ratings at the bottom of the article). However, those same metrics will tell you that Petr Cech and Vincente Guaita are the best keepers in the Premier League, and if you buy that well.. I think it says something about your ability to evaluate the sport.

Analytics are a weird thing, there’s a relationship between numbers and the fabled ‘eye test’ (you know, that thing on the internet where everyone suddenly claims they have a UEFA license and have watched every game in the stadium for the last 35 years). Statistics, properly done, tell us where our blind spots are. They tell us that Idrissa Gueye is a better passer than most people think he is. They tell us that running the attack through Richarlison outside of the box is a bad idea. But when an analytic tells us something that is completely backward to what we see on the pitch like this Sky report does: ‘Cech is a lot better than De Gea’, we have to doubt the metric.

Another thing when it comes to discussing Pickford’s shot stopping is that set pieces become a difficult portion of the discussion. Set pieces are a strength for the Three Lions and Achilles heel doesn’t begin to describe how big a problem they are for Everton - still the worst in the Premier League despite two consecutive clean sheets. This is not Pickford’s fault. All of his stats, traditional or analytic, suffer because Marco Silva does not know how to draw up a set piece defensive scheme.

I do not have complex stats to show you to that Jordan Pickford is actually a phenomenal keeper. I wish I did, because I am not comfortable evaluating players without hard data in front of me. I do know that selection of a national team keeper is not one you make just for today. It is one you make with an entire tournament cycle in view. With that in mind, who is still going to be at a top level next year for the Euros? Who is likely to be national team caliber in 2022 in Qatar? These things matter, and the long view of these things benefit the 24 year old who is still getting better and has already been brilliant on the big stage for his country.

Belgium v England: 3rd Place Playoff - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

I think on the whole summary of evidence, unless Jordan Pickford gives Gareth Southgate a compelling reason in an England shirt to not be picked, he should continue as the number 1.

I know that from an Everton source this comes off as biased, and maybe it is, but it is not fair to penalize a player because his club manager cannot draw up competent set piece defense, and it is not fair to evaluate a keeper entirely based on what he does with a completely different back line and system in front of him than what he faces for his country. Pickford in.