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Nick Pope for England? Burnley goalkeeper's stats make him No 1
Jordan Pickford's struggles stand in stark contrast to the fine form of Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope, writes Adam Bate.
Last Updated: 04/03/20 2:54pm
Nick Pope has the most clean sheets in the Premier League this season. The Burnley goalkeeper has bounced back from sitting out a full Premier League season following his dislocated shoulder to establish himself once more as the No 1 for his club. But the talk now is that Pope should be Gareth Southgate's first choice for England at Euro 2020 too.
Southgate was at St James' Park on Saturday afternoon to witness Pope's latest clean sheet at Newcastle. That is four in five games now. There was nothing too dramatic but maybe that is how it should be for a goalkeeper. Meanwhile, the erratic performances of the man in possession of the shirt, Jordan Pickford, continue to attract headlines of the wrong kind.
The England manager was also at Goodison Park at the weekend to witness Pickford allow Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes' long-range drive to evade his dive. The Everton goalkeeper made some amends with a double save late on but that is typical of his up-and-down form. In contrast, Pope has been a picture of reliability for Burnley.
"A goalkeeper can bring a calmness to a team," says manager Sean Dyche of Pope's good form and this 27-year-old goalkeeper is one of the calmest around. That clean-sheet statistic is impressive enough - it is seven in 14 games at Turf Moor now - but there are longer-term trends that also favour Pope over the current incumbent Pickford.
Opta's expected-goals model calculates how many shots that a goalkeeper is likely to have conceded based on the location of the shot, the type of shot, and where in the goal the ball was struck. According to that metric, since Pope made his Premier League debut in 2017, he has saved Burnley five goals in total while most of his rivals have cost their team goals.
Pickford has saved fewer shots than expected and so has the popular Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster. Burnley predecessor Tom Heaton has conceded around ten goals more than the numbers suggest he should have and the same is true of current team-mate Joe Hart. Southampton's Alex McCarthy fares even worse. Only Dean Henderson comes close.
In truth, Pope's expected-goals numbers are so impressive largely because of his extraordinary first season with Burnley. The former Charlton goalkeeper looked assured from the moment he replaced Heaton during the first half against Crystal Palace in September 2017, winning the man-of-the-match award that afternoon.
His stop to deny Southampton's Josh Sims was one of the saves of that season, highlighting his ability to stand tall, but there were all sorts of different saves. Shots down to his left. Shots down to his right. Balls kept out with his feet too. And he has added to the highlights reel this season, notably with his penalty save against Jamie Vardy in January.
Pope has few of the traits that would mark him out as a gamble by Southgate because errors are kept to a minimum. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that breakthrough season was that he was the only goalkeeper to make 20 or more Premier League appearances that season who did not make a single error leading to a shot.
There have been two this season, both of them punished. Pope erred at home to Crystal Palace and should have done better with Tammy Abraham's header at Chelsea in January. But it is two errors leading to shots compared to 18 by Pickford over the past three seasons - a comparison only partially skewed by the Everton man playing more matches.
As for some of the other aspects of Pope's game, they too point in his favour. He has come off his line to sweep up more times than any other Premier League goalkeeper this season and his command of the penalty area is a huge strength too. Nobody comes close to catching the ball as often as he does. Claiming crosses is arguably his greatest asset.
As an attacking team you shape to cross, and you think 'maybe we've got a chance', but then the cross comes in and a big monster like him comes and takes it.
Sean Dyche on Nick Pope
"As an attacking team you shape to cross, and you think 'maybe we've got a chance', but then the cross comes in and a big monster like him comes and takes it," says Dyche.
So, beyond blind loyalty to Pickford, what exactly is the problem here?
The answer to that question may lie with that thorny old subject called style. It is a familiar accusation for Burnley supporters now accustomed to the anti-football label. How does it impact Pope? Because Southgate wants a goalkeeper who is comfortable playing with the ball at his feet and that is just not part of his remit under Dyche at Burnley.
Pope's passing accuracy of just 38 per cent reflects the fact that most of his kicks go long. Only Foster has hit more long balls than him so far this season. Pope plays more than twice as many passes into the final third of the pitch than he does into his own half. It is just not the type of distribution that Southgate will want from his goalkeeper in the summer.
This is arguably Pickford's greatest strength and it is here that the contrast between the two goalkeepers becomes clear. Pickford is the only goalkeeper to hit 50 or more short passes this season without misplacing a single one - and he has found a team-mate with 267 of them. Pope has attempted a quarter of that number and lost the ball twice.
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Although not a natural with the ball at his feet, perhaps Pope would be able to adapt his game. It is worth noting that Southgate would face the same conundrum with Henderson. The Sheffield United goalkeeper is the only one to have hit more passes into the final third than Pope. His passing accuracy is even lower than his Burnley counterpart.
Ultimately, Southgate will have to weigh this up. How important is distribution? Is building attacks from the back more fundamental to the role of his goalkeeper than the traditional basics of keeping the ball out of the net? The England manager is entitled to think so. But he cannot deny that there is a persuasive argument for trusting Nick Pope with the job.