For over half a decade now, Jordan Pickford has been billed as the next great English goalkeeper.
He represented the national team from the U-16 side onward, was playing senior football at age 17 and became a Premier League starter by 22.
Pickford was Sunderland's best performer in his first season as a regular in 2016/17, and he was even named to WhoScored?'s EPL team of the season in spite of the Black Cats' relegation.
In the summer of 2017, Pickford earned a $31 million transfer to Everton. Playing for a team that was contending for European football, Pickford was expected to make the next big jump in his career.
Instead, the ensuing four years have been filled with inconsistent, mistake-prone performances at the club level, harsh criticism and some great play with England that he hasn't quite been able to replicate outside of the international stage.
After initial flashes of promise, Pickford experienced the worst season of his career in 2019/20. He allowed 4.3 more goals than expected (per FBref), third-worst among EPL keepers, and that poor form continued into the first half of the 20/21 season.
Pickford was benched for Robin Olsen on three separate occasions last season — the first EPL matches he's missed for Everton since joining prior to the 17/18 campaign.
At the midpoint of the campaign, Pickford's save percentage was nearly five points lower than expected, again, third-worst in the league.
Time and time again, the English goalkeeper has been marred by errors in technique and decision-making, which far too often cancel out the good things he does on the pitch.
#Wilson exposed one of the big weaknesses in #Pickford’s game today#Pickford regularly gets himself in no mans land & uses the engage & react technique during 1v1s which my research found was statistically the worst strategy when it comes to saving 1v1s!#EVENEW #PremierLeague pic.twitter.com/w8oa8JslZ8— John Harrison (@Jhdharrison1) January 30, 2021
But in the second half of 20/21, something clicked. After returning from a minor injury in January, Pickford was borderline exceptional for the rest of the season — even managing to finish with 0.7 fewer goals conceded than expected.
That good form continued into the European Championship. Pickford only allowed two goals in seven matches while recording five shutouts, both best among Euro 2020 goalkeepers. He looked a confident and commanding player behind the England backline.
Finalists #Donnarumma & #Pickford make up the top 3 after having stellar tournaments.#Simon’s PK saves got him 4th while #Schmeichel’s heroics vs #ENG dragged him up to 5th! pic.twitter.com/djPbYAgRn7
— John Harrison (@Jhdharrison1) July 17, 2021
Part of this though was due to a lighter workload thanks to the indomitable England backline. At Euro 2020, Pickford faced just 17 shots on target in seven matches — only Gigi Donnarumma and Unai Simón faced fewer SOT/match.
He's also a different type of goalkeeper for England. Pickford ranked 19th out of 24 goalkeepers at Euro 2020 at percentage of crosses claimed, while also finishing 29th out of 32 keepers in this category at the 2018 World Cup.
His 3.5 percent claim rate at international tournaments with England is half of the 8 percent rate has across four seasons for Everton. This is the result of having large-headed defenders like Harry Maguire in front of him to defend against aerial balls, which allows Pickford to focus more on shot-stopping.
In many ways, Pickford is the typical "better-for-country-than-for-club" player. Playing behind England's stout defense, Pickford allows around half as many goals per match for England (0.76) as he does for Everton (1.45).
His WhoScored? rating of 6.79/10 at the Euros was fourth among eligible goalkeepers, and is the one of the best of his career — higher than any of his Everton campaigns and second only to his 16/17 season with Sunderland.
We've seen this before though. Pickford had a solid showing at the 2018 World Cup en route to a semifinal appearance, continued that momentum into the club season, but couldn't sustain his good form the following year.
For a while now, we've heard of Pickford as a great up-and-coming player who is destined to be the next great English keeper.
But he's 27 now, and while a goalkeeper's prime comes later than for an outfield player, he hasn't played well enough consistently for Everton to even be considered one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
His great performances for seven-game stretches every other year satisfy fans of the national team but leave Everton fans wanting more.
A world-class keeper should still be successful regardless of the defenders playing in front of him, and while Pickford has demonstrated that he can make phenomenal saves and pin-point passes, these positives have often been nullified out by simple mistakes.
Now entering his fifth season at Everton, Pickford needs to prove that he can play like he did this summer over the course of a nine-month campaign, otherwise, he will always be known as one of the Premier League's biggest "what-ifs."