England: Who can solve the goalkeeping dilemma?

With the 2018 World Cup just around the corner, a place between the Three Lions’ sticks is well and truly up for grabs – but who does Gareth Southgate choose?

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(Photo credit: Илья Хохлов)

It’s been an area of perceived weakness for some time. Perhaps not since the days of David Seaman have England had a consistently worthy choice in goal.

In recent years Joe Hart has had a relatively firm grip on the #1 shirt, but with his value depreciating as fast as a brand new car off the forecourt, are the West Ham loanee’s days as England’s first option are now over?

With less than three months to go until England kick off their World Cup against Tunisia, Southgate will be eager to have the issue resolved sooner rather than later.

However, his decision to include four goalkeepers in the squad for the upcoming friendlies suggest that he’s really not sure who it’ll be. 

Is Joe Hart’s time up?

The 30-year-old has been around the England set-up for some time – almost 10 years, in fact. Hart made his debut back in 2008, and has since been a mainstay, amassing 75 caps.

His numbers are relatively impressive, but his form in recent times isn’t.

Hart’s downfall was sped up by a distinctly poor performance at Euro 2016, notably in games against Wales and Iceland. 

The arrival of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City was bad news for Hart, as he was dropped at the beginning of the 2016/17 season on the back of a lacklustre summer tournament in favour of back-up option, Claudio Bravo. 

A subsequent loan to Serie A side Torino got off to an equally rocky start after a fatal error in a defeat to Atalanta. Hart played the vast majority of the season as Torino finished ninth, conceding the fourth-highest amount of goals in the division.

Still not in Guardiola’s plans, he now finds himself at West Ham United.  After starting the season as first choice, West Ham plummeted to 18th and had the division’s worst goal difference 14 games in. Hart was relieved of his duties, and aside from the 0-3 home defeat to Burnley last time out, he’s played second fiddle to Adrian. 

His track record is blemished, and he’ll be very fortunate to keep his place as England’s goalkeeper.

Will Nick Pope get a chance to shine?

Of the four stoppers selected by Southgate in the recent squad announcement, Burnley’s Nick Pope boasts the best numbers on paper.

An injury to fan favourite Tom Heaton early on in the season presented an opportunity to Pope, and he grasped it with both hands. 

Burnley have shipped a respectable 26 goals this season; only the two Manchester clubs and Spurs have conceded fewer – and Pope as had a fair say in those statistics, keeping 10 clean sheets and making 89 saves in their 30 games thus far.

After spending much of last season fighting potential relegation, Burnley currently sit seventh in the league table and look well on course to lock in their first top-half finish under Sean Dyche.

Pope’s rise has been rather incredible. It was only seven seasons ago that he was turning out for non-league sides Harrow Borough and Welling United on loan from Charlton Athletic. 

This is his first call-up, but arguably the most deserved out of all those selected. Of all the options at Southgate’s disposable, it’s hard to argue that Pope isn’t in the best form.

Has injury ruined it for Jack Butland?

In recent seasons, no one has come closer than Stoke’s Butland to wrestling the #1 shirt from Hart.

Butland quickly made a name for himself, after finally being given first-choice status by then-boss Mark Hughes following the departure of Asmir Begovic.

Butland played a big part in Stoke’s highest ever Premier League finish of ninth back in the 2015/16 season, earning him the club’s own player of the year award.

His form put him in pole position to be England’s stand-out pick before an unfortunate injury during a 3-2 win over Germany in the March of that season ruled him out for some time, taking with it his chances of playing at Euro 2016.

The extent of the injury soon became clear: Butland had fractured his ankle and was subsequently sidelined for a year, missing almost the entirety of last season.

But he’s back with a point to prove. He won’t be helped however by the lowly position that his Stoke City side face themselves in. Of the all the goalkeepers selected, Butland represents the club in lowest position as the Potters fight against a looming relegation – and they also have the worst goal difference in the Premier League. 

Should Stoke succumb to the top-flight’s trap door, Butland’s future will be a hot topic this summer; but for England though, he may well feel like he’s starting again.

Has Everton’s season spoiled the party for Pickford?

Rewind the clock to this time last year, and Jordan Pickford could do no wrong. 

Part of a poor Sunderland side that (over the whole season) probably deserved to be relegated, Pickford faced an onslaught most weeks as the Black Cats finished a huge 16 points adrift of safety. 

Sunderland, unsurprisingly, finished with an abysmal goal difference of -40. Pickford though, was often lauded for keeping that stat from becoming a total embarrassment. 

Such was the positivity around the form and ability of the fast-emerging talent last campaign, that he was shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. He had put himself in the spotlight.

A move in the summer was imminent, and an initial fee of £25m paid by Everton made Pickford the all-time most expensive British goalkeeper. 

The transfer was a statement from Everton to build on a positive previous season with the aim to finally crack the top six despite losing Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United. 

It hasn’t quite gone to plan, however. Everton’s form has been sporadic. Where they conceded only 44 goals last campaign, with seven games remaining they’ve already conceded 50 this time around. 

As an overall defensive unit the Toffees have been soft, and it would be harsh to single out Pickford as the main culprit. What it doesn’t do, though, is help his chances with a starting spot in the England lineup.

So what should Southgate do?

Hardly one with a reputation to be adventurous and overly experimental, most of the signs seem to point to Southgate taking the ‘safe’ option and initially select Hart as his goalkeeper.

Friday’s friendly in the Netherlands will be a good indicator – whoever gets the start there is surely the current favourite for the job come the summer.

On current form – a basis on which Southgate pledged to select his England squads – the role surely has to go to Burnley’s Pope, a resolute, solid and steady season boosting his credentials. 

Conversely, this is his first ever England call-up, and his lack of experience may be something Southgate holds against him. Everyone has to start somewhere, though.

These two upcoming fixtures will be tough for England, which must be seen as a positive, a test. 

All-too-often England have gone into a summer tournament with an unsettled, undecided and untested line-up, and it’s something that has to change. A scenario that sees all four candidates playing a half each in the next week would be a disaster – the back four and the goalkeeper need time to get on the same wavelength, to build some consistency and chemistry.

You wouldn’t find many who dispute that Hart’s time has now surely been and gone. England need a fresh approach, and now is as good a time as any to start it. 

Do you agree? Do you believe it’s time to move on and hand the reins over to a new talent? Who should be England’s goalkeeper in Russia?

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