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Jordan Pickford's long balls part of England’s problem at Euro 2024? It is impacting possession and pressing

Gareth Southgate talks of wanting to build with more control so why has goalkeeper Jordan Pickford launched the ball long more than any other player at Euro 2024?

UEFA Euro 2024, European Championship, Denmark - England, Preliminary round, Group C, Matchday 2, Frankfurt Arena, England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford after the match.
Image: Is Jordan Pickford's long passing hampering England's ability to keep the ball?

“We are not keeping the ball well enough. It is as simple as that. We have to keep the ball better and build with more control. Then we will be defending less and we will have more confidence.”

Some of Gareth Southgate's comments in the immediate aftermath of England's disappointing 1-1 draw with Denmark on Thursday caused consternation back home. But surely few would disagree with this particular analysis of his side's struggles.

The worry is that his tactics are causing this problem.

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England's Eberechi Eze, Jordan Pickford and John Stones remain optimistic

England's issues are manifold but they are also linked. Southgate suggests that it is fitness problems that are impacting their ability to press effectively but Harry Kane's comments felt closer to the truth. "In general, we are not sure how to get the pressure on."

The absence of an effective pressing structure is partly a result of their inability to retain possession. There is a lack of coherence to the team's playing style. It was a moment in the narrow win over Serbia that illustrated this problem perfectly.

Jordan Pickford goes long to Harry Kane with Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham showing for it
Image: Jordan Pickford goes long to Harry Kane with Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham showing for it

Early in the second half, Phil Foden found himself deep, showing to receive a short-range pass from Jordan Pickford. A little further away, in the left channel, Jude Bellingham came haring towards the ball to provide the goalkeeper with another option.

Instead, Pickford chose neither, ignoring John Stones stood to his right too. He had spotted a long-range pass to Kane out on the left. The striker was outmuscled. Serbia had the ball back. Those passes have become a feature of England's play at Euro 2024.

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Jordan Pickford has attempted to launch the ball upfield more than any other player at Euro 2024
Image: Jordan Pickford has attempted to launch the ball upfield more than any other player

What is a launch?

Opta defines a launch as a high ball into space or an area for players to chase or challenge for the ball

The statistics show that Pickford has attempted to launch the ball more than any other player in the competition after two rounds of games. It is not a recipe for ball retention. It is a tactic more suited to unfancied sides than a supposedly ambitious England outfit.

Of course, this is Pickford's natural game at club level under Sean Dyche at Everton. He hit 968 long passes in the past Premier League season, 77 more than Luton goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski and over 200 more than any other player in the competition. This swarm-plot highlights just what an outlier Pickford is stylistically.

The key difference is that Dyche's tactics make sense because everybody knows this is the plan. When Everton launch the ball long, it is with a view to getting bodies around the centre-forward, winning possession high up the pitch and playing from there.

Is that the plan when Pickford looks for Kane? Not when Foden is inside his own box and Bellingham is making a similar movement towards his goalkeeper. How could they help press at the other end when Kane lost out? They had anticipated another pass entirely.

There is no chance of pressing from those deep positions, no structure that would make sense of such a disjointed approach. There is a reason why the best possession teams are often the best pressing teams. They have players close to the ball when they lose it.

Any group of players would look tired when attempting to fill the vast spaces that open up when Pickford punches yet another pass deep into opposition territory. It is a tactic that will need to change if England are to progress, if England are to control big games.

Jordan Pickford's pass map for England at Euro 2024
Image: Jordan Pickford's pass map for England in their opening two games at Euro 2024

The frustration is that there are plenty of players within Southgate's side who should be suited to playing a possession game. The majority of the line-up that has started these two games represent Manchester City, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

Kyle Walker and Stones are certainly capable of building from the back. They play their club football for Pep Guardiola, the coach who has practically mastered the tactic, changing the way that many of the world's top teams play this sport in the process.

For others, it would require an adjustment, but it is still possible. Marc Guehi can keep it simple. Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo have the potential to bring more calm to midfield than Trent Alexander-Arnold, another guilty of looking too long with his passes.

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Rob Dorsett on the real concerns for Gareth Southgate after Denmark result

But the fear is that England's build-up problems begin with their goalkeeper. Southgate might be reluctant to ask Pickford to play a game with which he is uncomfortable, yet he will surely understand that this is undermining their ability to maintain any control.

Uncomfortable in possession and exhausted out of it, these are age-old problems for England at tournaments. This time, there is a twist. Half of this line-up look like they are now used to another way. But until everyone is on the same page, it risks being a mess.

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