Sector 7G, Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Homer Simpson sits quietly at his desk, cooking fondue, when his co-workers arrive in anticipation of his latest hilarious mishap. “Get ready, everybody,” whispers colleague and drinking buddy, Lenny Leonard. “He’s about to do something stupid.” True to form, Homer then comically spills his fondue all over his control panel.
In many ways, this feels a particularly apt allegory for the demise of Jordan Pickford, once a model of consistency in both the Everton and England goal, now a skittish, confused object of widespread ridicule. So much so that, similarly, you’re almost on tenterhooks waiting for the next calamity from the goalkeeper with the most errors leading to goals (11) in the Premier League since his Everton arrival in June 2017; it’s become a case of when, not if, in that regard.
Take Pickford’s latest blunder, during Saturday’s 4-2 home win over Brighton, for instance. Leandro Trossard gift-wrapped the ball for him to smother, beating his shot into the sodden Goodison Park turf, ridding the strike of any semblance of pace or venom. The most elementary of saves awaited Pickford. Yet this hot potato still burnt a little too fiercely, splattering on the floor to ultimately gift Neal Maupay an equaliser. The ground took a punching, the Gwladys Street goalpost a kicking, and Pickford’s already battered reputation another bruising.
It may be seven victories from seven so far this term for Everton, but the six which have involved Pickford have yielded just one clean sheet. That was the opening-day 1-0 triumph at Tottenham, the only of these matches won with the aid of Pickford, rather than in spite of him. Which in itself is an interesting case study, in that it’s probably the game where Pickford was kept busiest. Everton outplayed Spurs, but could easily have had to settle for less if not for Pickford’s commanding punches, his authoritative catches, and in particular his denials of Dele Alli and Matt Doherty in on goal.
This is the peculiar paradox with Pickford, though. Think back to his best games in an Everton shirt - that Tottenham victory, the stoic goalless draw at Chelsea in November 2018 when he made four pivotal saves, or the derby stalemate at Goodison Park the following March when he stood tall to rebuff Mohamed Salah clean through. These are all matches when the odds were stacked against Pickford, when his workload was heaviest, when he could ill-afford to let his mind wander for even a split-second.
By contrast, it feels the less Pickford has to do, the more vulnerable he becomes. Brighton barely troubled him before Maupay’s shoddy leveller on Saturday. Fleetwood Town were utterly mauled by Everton in the first half of their EFL Cup clash two weeks ago, only for their first two meaningful forays forward to result into two Pickford-assisted goals. Crystal Palace and Manchester United had both offered precious little in attack before Christian Benteke and Bruno Fernandes netted fortuitous equalisers in their sides’ respective trips to Goodison last term.
The trouble with this, too, is that these mental foibles feel the most innate, ingrained element of Pickford as a human being as much as a footballer. How can Carlo Ancelotti legislate for brain farts, or a simple lack of concentration or professionalism on Pickford’s part? More to the point, do Everton have enough time on their side to even try to teach an individual with an inherently short attention span to pay attention?
Good coaching could at least go some way to rectifying the technical flaws to his game, like his erratic distribution and his proclivity for spilling shots from distance. Again, his biggest asset is his reflexes and reactions - making the saves where you act more on impulse, where there simply is no time for thinking.
Indeed, his biggest enemy is his own mind; in that respect, the perceived arrogance about Pickford points more to an individual overcompensating for an undercutting insecurity in himself than anything else. “Everyone hates you, for some reason,” he said after that cheap Benteke goal in February. “I just get on with it. I know what I’m capable of and I know what I’m good at. Yeah, it hurts.” None of this smacks of someone immune to or unfazed by criticism; rather, it makes the post-gaffe tongue-wagging and pint-necking at darts events feel more of an imperious facade than the real Pickford. He’s human, too, of course.
Certainly, Everton could do worse than provide Pickford with fiercer competition for his place. Current backup Jonas Lossl has not played a minute of competitive football since leaving Huddersfield, one of the worst sides in Premier League history, for Everton in May 2019. Maarten Stekelenburg, solid as he was in his prime, succumbed to typically Evertonian gallows humour by garnering the nickname of ‘the hologram’. Joao Virginia struggled during a loan spell at Championship side Reading which was cut short last season and at 20 is still too raw to rely on.
Already, we have seen how the midfield additions of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré appear to have rejuvenated last season’s pariahs Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fabian Delph. Likewise, Alex Iwobi and Bernard, both reduced to bit-part roles so far this term, have by and large taken their opportunities with real gusto when called upon. It is not wishful thinking to picture a similar renaissance for Pickford were he to face a new challenger; a more credible threat to ending his record of having not missed a league game since moving to Goodison. Either that, or Everton have a different, better goalkeeper between the sticks.
So far, it’s been difficult to find fault in Ancelotti’s treatment of Pickford. He has not followed José Mourinho’s well-trodden, self-defeating path of offering the public verse and chapter on why his own player is a total liability, sticking instead to just the occasional glare as icy as Nordic December. And of course, he’s at least given him every chance on the field to rediscover the sort of form which propelled him to first-choice goalkeeper for a World Cup semi-finalist in the first place.
But in a season of opportunity, which feels the most open Premier League since Leicester’s 5000-1 miracle, Everton cannot afford to repeat mistakes of old and leave anything to chance. Pickford has not cost them yet this season, but like the anticipation of his next faux pas, there is an eerie sense of inevitability about this, too.
If Ancelotti is to stick with Pickford, he must help him at least attempt to overcome the mental hurdles that stand between him and an improved, reliable goalkeeper. Whether that is through some soul-searching on Pickford’s part or a kick up the backside from a more able deputy is for the Italian to decide.
Either way, a fever dream of a start for Everton cannot be allowed to be undermined by more nightmarish goalkeeping displays. Otherwise, a campaign with untold potential could end up being consigned to history as merely the season which Everton started well.