In a Euro 2020 tournament that has contained Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois and Italy’s wonderkid Gianluigi Donnarumma, could it be England’s Jordan Pickford has been the best goalkeeper so far?
There’s a valid argument to be made and despite those who remain unconvinced by him as a top-class goalkeeper, it’s a statement that would have been deemed outlandish prior to the tournament kicking off. Yet here we are, 360 minutes played and Pickford's sheets are so clean they could be used in any washing powder advertisement.
Of course, clean sheets aren’t always an accurate yardstick by which to judge the best keeper of a competition as it’s a collective defensive effort. What has been impressive about Pickford is his shift from a risk-taker who wanted want to be involved in solving every defensive problem, to one making balanced decisions and being there at the crucial moments he’s needed. That is the sign of a top keeper.
Think Gianluigi Buffon, think Edwin Van der Sar, and whilst looking back through Pickford’s lineage as England’s number one, think David Seaman. Rarely extravagant in their work but as reliable as a Swiss timepiece. At 27, Pickford is at the stage of his career where many athletes can come a crossroads, where many can take left or right turns and their careers plateau, yet these performances suggest a self-awareness of his past shortcomings and a desire to not settle for where his talent has brought him to so far.
Not that we should be totally surprised at the stability he has shown, given his exploits in Russia three years ago. The Three Lions jersey clearly has a calming effect on him and if we are to rank the performances of the tournament’s top net minders, he has to be prominent in any conversation.
In Italy’s imperious Donnarumma, Denmark’s statesman-like Kasper Schmeichel and the Real deal Courtois, Pickford has esteemed company vying for the accolade of of King Keeper. His inclusion in this list has been earned.
Should England advance to the last four, his achievements at international level will leave him only surpassed by the great Gordon Banks for England and from this perspective, it’s difficult to deny him his place at the top table.
His rivals for the accolade of the leading goalkeeper are each worth of their own respect too. Stepping out from the enormous shadow of his father Peter, Kasper Schmeichel has not only shown to be a reliable and impressive player for club and country, he has also grown into a great example of what a true leader is.
From the dignified way he handled the loss of Leicester’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and the comfort and strength he provided in the wake of Christian Eriksen’s recovery from collapsing in front of the whole world, Schmeichel has performed admirably given the mental pressures he has been under.
Carrying a name weighing as heavy as his father’s would be enough to buckle most men, yet his capacity to carve his own way in the manner he has, shows just how special a character he is for the Danes.
Like Pickford, Donnarumma has played a largely well protected but undeniably important role in Italy’s progress and their 30-match unbeaten run under Roberto Mancini.
Donnarumma is the “bambino prodigio” of the goalkeeping world and incredibly has amassed more than 200 appearances in Serie A for AC Milan and played 30 times for his country at the age of just 22. He truly is the Prince to Italy’s long-reigning King, Gianluigi Buffon, and the maturity he exudes belies someone so young, even if the stature of the man is that of a Neapolitan giant.
Outside the big guns, the true hero of the tournament has been Czech Republic’s Tomas Vaclik. The 32-year-old has been the one keeper in this tournament who has pulled out the most spectacular performances. Big saves at big moments in the games against Scotland and the Netherlands helped carry his team through to the last eight, none more so than brilliantly defying Donyell Malen in a 1v1 moments before the incident which saw Matthijs De Ligt sent off.
If anything though, Euro 2020 has shown us what it truly is to be a goalkeeper. In the world of amateur punditry, there can only ever be three kinds; you have the heroes, the villains and all in between are clowns. And if the job of a goalkeeper wasn’t hard enough, this tournament has seen nine own goals scored, more than in every other Euros put together.
Not that some keepers help themselves in this respect. Slovakia’s Martin Dubravka punching the ball into his own net against Spain, a mere 18 minutes after saving Alvaro Morata’s penalty. Both hero and villain, the double edged life of a goalkeeper.
Not that Dubravka has been alone in dealing with this acute sense of embarrassment. Spain’s Unai Simon slicing the ball into his own net and Scotland keeper David Marshall’s risky positioning have added both entertainment and egg to their own face.
Goalkeeper errors are the death and taxes of football. The sooner you accept that every game you play without making a mistake leading to a goal is only another game closer to making one, the more at peace you’ll be when they happen.
It’s actually these blunders that make goalkeeper the most human position on the pitch and as humans we know are all flawed. The one difference here is when a light is shone on the imperfections of a goalkeeper, they’re laid bare for the whole world to see.
So don’t tell me keepers have to be crazy to do what they do or that they’re clowns in the circus of our game. If mental strength was gauged by physical robustness, the head of a goalkeeper would be made from granite stone.