GARETH SOUTHGATE has four friendly internationals before England’s first game against Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup.
The national boss will already have a strong idea of his starting XI for the June 18 opener in Volgograd but the goalkeeping situation is a major worry. Currently, it is a mess.
Despite the criticism which followed some poor performances – particularly at Euro 2016 – Joe Hart has remained as Southgate’s first choice keeper.
Having spent the last five Premier League games on West Ham’s substitutes bench with Adrian being preferred, it would now be unthinkable for Hart can keep his place in the Three Lions’ starting XI.
Hart, 30, has played 75 times for England and played a key part in a comfortable qualifying campaign – despite not being given much credit – with two excellent performances against Slovenia.
The player’s experience will ensure he features in the final 23 for Russia but Hart has to start playing for David Moyes in the League if he is to return for England.
Elsewhere, there is extremely little international experience among Southgate’s keepers.
This was not helped by Roy Hodgson’s general reluctance to pick players other than Hart in goal for his friendlies over four years in charge. This was always a stupid decision.
Jack Butland, 24, has always been the man looking likely to step into Hart’s shoes.
His senior debut was the first half of a friendly against Italy in Switzerland after Euro 2012 but the final qualifier against Lithuania in October was only Butland’s sixth appearance. This is simply not enough.
He is a super-confident keeper and can make some big saves, like he did against West Brom on Saturday, but he can also suffer some tough days and is looking to work on his consistency.
Southampton’s Fraser Forster has also played six times for his country. He is capable of delivering some match-winning performances but has not quite been the same player since a serious knee injury ruled him out for 10 months in 2015.
Burnley’s Tom Heaton, 31, rated highly by his peers, has made just three England appearances but now looks out of the picture after suffering a shoulder injury in September.
Even when he does return, Heaton faces a battle to oust Nick Pope, 25, who has impressed at Turf Moor.
So, the door is open for Jordan Pickford to go into a World Cup year as the potential number one, despite having made just one senior appearance – a full 90 minutes in a 0-0 against Germany in November.
He has great potential, there is no doubt. Southgate, as we reveal today, is keen for him to ensure he is lean, fit and physically stronger.
Then, he has a chance of starting in Russia although over the next six months will look to improve in various areas of his game.
Having playing through England’s youth ranks, former under-21s coach Southgate knows him extremely well.
Pickford is famed for his distribution and that left foot is truly out of this world. But along with the incredible power, he needs to improve the direction while – standing at a relatively modest 6ft 1 ins – must keep improving on the way he deals with crosses.
Like all of the other keepers, barring Hart and Forster for Celtic in the Champions League, the English keepers do not have those major European nights on the big stage to call upon.
Europa League does not really count so Pickford will go into the World Cup – if he is number 1 – without that experience.
It is not just a case of a keeper making a mistake, it is how he deals with delivering a major clanger in a high profile match.
Pickford’s £25million summer move from Sunderland to Everton was a big one and he has handled it pretty well.
His performances have been mixed but until the arrival of Sam Allardyce, he was getting very little protection from the defence.
He has conceded just two goals in his last six games, with Saturday’s goalless draw with Chelsea his fourth clean sheet in that period.
Pickford is not a child – he is aged 23. Compare this to Gianluigi Donnarumma who has played 95 times for Milan and been handed four Italian caps – and he is 18.
All good keepers take the chance when it is given – and now this opportunity could be Pickford’s.
Southgate must be clear and decisive. On the eve of England’s 2010 World Cup opener against United States in South Africa, Fabio Capello refused to tell either Robert Green or David James over who was starting.
Green was told on the morning of the match. And we all know what happened in Rustenburg.
https://twitter.com/intent/tweet?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thesun.co.uk%2Fsport%2Ffootball%2F5209164%2Fengland-world-cup-goalkeeper-jordan-pickford-butland-forster-hart%2F&text=England's%20World%20Cup%20keeper%20will%20be%20Jordan%20Pickford%20IF%20he%20gets%20fitter%20and%20stronger” target=”_blank” title=”Click to share on Twitter