Assessing the intense battle for England's No. 1 shirt
As the 2018 World Cup approaches, England have real competition for the starting keeper position. Joe Hart has had the gloves for years now, but the Three Lions have two extremely talented keepers putting real pressure on the veteran.
England cruised to World Cup qualification last Thursday with a tense match against Slovenia at Wembley. Captain Harry Kane provided the stoppage-time goal that secured the Three Lions’ spot in Russia and, like the following match in Lithuania on Sunday night, the 1-0 victory was mediocre and unconvincing.
Competing in a very average Group F in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers has been both a blessing and a curse. Bagging a spot in the tournament without any steep competition is nice, but the current powerhouse national teams (Germany, France, Brazil, etc.) are not afraid of this England side. Nor should they be.
Despite the extremely disappointing performances last summer in France and in Brazil back in 2014, the current England squad is showing signs of promise and depth in certain areas. Overall, the squad has improved - though the question of their relative quality remains to be seen.
However, they are much improved at one position in particular. Next summer’s World Cup is the first major tournament in recent history where there is real competition for the No. 1 shirt.
It doesn’t take a writer or journalist to gauge the desire of England supporters in this matter. Joe Hart arguably cost England the Euros last summer in France with a blunder against Wales, and a couple of errors that saw Iceland send England packing. At the previous World Cup in Brazil, the England keeper looked erratic and uncomfortable. This went a long way to explaining why one of Pep Guardiola’s first moves after taking the reins at Manchester City was benching Hart, and eventually shipping him to Italy.
The current England keeper clearly lacks the consistency and composure to keep himself and his defense calm under pressure in big moments. That being said, the other keepers in the national side haven’t proven themselves on the big stage either. However, they haven’t had the opportunity due to Hart’s tenure in goal.
Joe Harts’ best attribute is his experience. He’s England’s third-most capped keeper, and has played a lot of football against many different sides, from national teams to Premier League and Serie A teams. Besides Fraser Forster - the lowest rated of England’s current keepers and least likely to win the spot - Hart is by far the elder. Now 30 years of age, he’s feeling the pressure from two young talents yet to enter their prime.
Jack Butland is putting the most pressure on Hart. Many believed the immensely skillful Bristol native had a real opportunity to take the gloves off Hart in the lead up to the Euros last summer before he suffered a devastating ankle injury against Germany. He eventually had three surgeries on his fractured ankle late last year and returned to training with the Potters in March of this year.
Butland has received many votes of confidence, most notably from England’s all-time most capped player and legend Peter Shilton. Shilton first shared his belief in the Stoke keeper back in 2012 with BBC Sport when Butland was still at Birmingham City. Most recently, the former Lions keeper said “I think Gareth Southgate has got to play Jack Butland over the next few games before the World Cup. It’s not a foregone thing with Joe in my opinion.” Speaking on his lack of experience, Shilton added “Butland has never had a chance to prove himself.”
For England’s last World Cup qualifier in Lithuania on Sunday, Butland got the start between the posts. Without having to make too many saves or do much at all in the first half, he made a potentially game-changing save just after the break. He earned a clean sheet for England two years after he made his international competitive debut against the same country.
He did all he could to boost Southgate’s confidence in him. Southgate worked with Butland in the U-21s so he knows him very well which is another factor in the battle for the starting keeper position for the Lions.
However, a much more important factor is a young Sunderland academy product plying his trade at Everton.
Jordan Pickford has shined since his arrival at Goodison Park over the summer. Not only is Pickford the youngest keeper in the England squad, but he’s the most expensive. He has the least experience of the foursome, but had a very solid summer at the under-21 European Championships. He’s the smallest physical specimen, but his speed and agility are what sets him apart from the group.
Pickford’s move to Everton certainly helps his case as the main contender, but his talent is rather raw. He is an extremely promising prospect for England, and is one of the reasons they have unprecedented depth at the position. In the near future, Pickford and Butland will be the two keepers battling for the gloves. For now, they are creating a healthy situation and great mix of young talent and experience. It’s a bit strange to say, but England have a wealth of top keepers at their disposal and will for the distant future.
Verdict: There is more than enough evidence to say that Joe Hart does not have what it takes to perform on the big stage. That being said, there isn’t much evidence that suggests Jack Butland or Jordan Pickford could do so either. And this is where Gareth Southgate has to take a chance. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then Southgate would be insane not to give Butland a shot.
England have two massively important friendlies against Germany and Brazil next month, and they provide the perfect situation for Butland to prove to Southgate and to England that he has what it takes to wear the number one shirt. His club form this term will be massively important in his pursuit of the spot.