With a draw at home to champions Chelsea, Sam Allardyce extended his unbeaten run since taking charge of Everton to six games. It is hard to identify a single player in the hosts’ XI that has not improved under the former England boss. Wayne Rooney is the obvious beneficiary of Allardyce’s arrival, but as man of the match Michael Keane admitted after shutting out the champions: “Everyone at the club struggled before the new gaffer came in.”
This was Keane’s first start under Allardyce, the £30million summer signing seeing only 10 minutes of action since the 4-1 thrashing at Southampton almost a month ago. His rustiness showed early on, with a couple of suspect decisions and one particularly ropey pass that gave Pedro a sight of goal doing little to ease his nerves back in the first XI. But with no-one directly up against him while Eden Hazard drifted between Everton’s defenders, Keane grew into the game and he was impressive after the break as part of a back three alongside Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams, who also appear to have remembered how to defend after probably countless hours on the training ground under Big Sam’s tutelage.
The one player from whom Allardyce did not have to tease out an immediate improvement is the man behind Keane, Williams and Jagielka.
Jordan Pickford, like Keane, was a big money buy but the young goalkeeper has impressed everyone at Everton since the start of the season – other players have managed such levels of consistency, but not in a positive sense. Granted, the bar was set very low by Joel Robles and Maarten Stekelenburg last term but the Toffees’ woes under Ronald Koeman and David Unsworth this season were in spite of Pickford’s efforts; they were certainly not because of him.
Only Lukasz Fabianski has had to deal with more shots on target than Pickford has faced in 19 games this season, but not one of the 30 goals he has conceded has been the result of a goalkeeping error.
Allardyce’s arrival has brought about three clean sheets in five games for Pickford, who had gone 12 matches without a shut-out between the opening day of the season and the West Ham game which the new manager watched from the stands. But the 23-year-old’s workload has not decreased significantly despite the team’s improvement and their new-found defensive resilience.
Everton allowed 14 shots per game before Big Sam, while that figure has only dropped to 13.5 since his appointment. In terms of having to get his gloves dirty, Pickford faced an average of five shots on target per game under Koeman and Unsworth. Again, that number has not dropped significantly – the keeper has still had to deal with four shots per game over the last six matches.
Standing between his goal and the champions, Pickford had his second-busiest day of the season. Chelsea attempted 25 shots and managed to get eight on target. Pickford repelled all of them, with his most impressive work coming after a couple of attempts from Pedro – one high and one low – before he shuffled across his goal to deny Hazard with another low parry.
That is one of Pickford’s strengths: when he blocks the ball, his steel wrists and shovel hands see to it that there is no secondary danger. How Everton’s Merseyside rivals would like a similarly impervious stopper.
Pickford’s feet possess similar power, and his side volley is a goalkeeping geek’s wet dream. But in addition to his technical assets, his mentality is similarly impressive.
Allardyce this week spoke of how impressive Pickford’s communication is for a young keeper who is “very mature for his age”. The path he has taken to the top has been key, with the Sunderland academy graduate having played at every level from the Conference to the Premier League. The fact he doesn’t appear to have suffered from PTSD after a season behind the Black Cats’ defence last year speaks volumes for his mental strength.
Pickford has also represented every youth level on his journey to the England senior team, and Gareth Southgate was at Goodison Park to watch the keeper, capped only once at international level, shut out the champions. With Joe Hart’s prospects in a seemingly irreversible descent, there is no safer pair of hands for the England No.1 spot ahead of next summer.