A lot has been said about Nick Pope’s meteoric rise to success at Burnley. Bought for just £1.1m from Charlton Athletic in July 2016, Pope found himself flung into the first team following an elbow injury to the talismanic Tom Heaton against Crystal Palace. Heaton had been the crucial reason Burnley had managed to remain in the Premier League in the 16/17 season keeping 10 clean sheets in 35 appearances. His heroics against Manchester United are held long in the hearts of the Turf Moor faithful as the Clarets held on for a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Heaton had famously “almost broken his arm” blocking a shot from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. These would be tough gloves to fill!
Burnley went on to beat Crystal Palace 1-0 in Pope’s first appearance and unsurprisingly he was given his first start the following week in a 1-1 away draw with Liverpool on 16th September 2017. A game I had the pleasure of attending! Scott Arfield opened the scoring with a lovely curling shot into the top left before Mohamed Salah latched onto a long ball over the top – something that we would all soon realise the potency of that season!
Pope was awarded a new contract after just 2 appearances tying him to the club until June 2020, luckily for Burnley fans this was extended to 2023 back in June 2019. It was clear for all to see that Nick Pope’s time in Lancashire had started admirably.
A staple of Sean Dyche’s Burnley set up is rigidity. Both in practice and personnel. Dyche is the antithesis of a tinker-man. He is a disciple of the belief that if something isn’t broken, why fix it? Unfortunately for his players, this means if you are not a member of the starting 11, your seat in the dugout will be very used to being warm.
This breeds a culture of patience and persistence at Turf Moor; players are aware at some point their chance will come which pushes them to train at an exceptionally hard level improving themselves and the team around them. It is up to the player to grab the bull by the horns when their chance inevitably arrives. In this regard, Nick Pope would certainly be described as a matador.
In the near 3 years since Nick Pope made his debut, he has nailed down the No. 1 shirt at Burnley, finished in a club record 7th place, appeared in an exciting (if however brief) Europa League campaign and represented the England national team on 2 occasions.
The most recent Premier League season however is the season in which the lad from Cambridgeshire became a household name. In the following part of this article I will attempt to justify, using statistics, why Pope stakes the largest claim to the national team jersey so for now, retain in your head that 19/20 was a very good year for him!
With the Nations League due to start on the 3rd September 2020, Gareth Southgate will be poring over archived Premier League footage from his house in West Yorkshire to reach a verdict for his final squad. Indecently, I live a few minutes away from Southgate and there is something rather quaint about the thought of him selecting England players as I write about him doing just that a few miles down the road!
It is a rather limited standpoint to just describe reasons why Nick Pope is a talented player or even mapping his career trajectory to date. None of these are valid reasons as to why he should start for England. I will attempt this now!
Almost all English football fans agree that England’s first choice goalkeeper should be one of: Nick Pope, Dean Henderson or Jordan Pickford so for relative ease I will be comparing these 3 and only these 3.
(Honourable mentions include: Ben Foster and Aaron Ramsdale)
I will be using several different metrics to compare the 3 with acknowledgements as to why these metrics may or may not be flawed.
Clean Sheets: (source: premierleague.com)
Nick Pope – 15
Dean Henderson – 13
Jordan Pickford – 9
Nick Pope has the most Premier League clean sheets out of the 3 but it is a fair assumption to make that a clean sheet is not always the sole responsibility of the goalkeeper. The defence can stake a fairly large claim as well. The better defence in front of the keeper would mean they concede fewer shots, could this be why Nick Pope’s clean sheets are inflated? Well not really…
Shots Conceded: (source: premierleague.com)
Nick Pope – 345
Dean Henderson – 247
Jordan Pickford – 262
(As there is no official stat for ‘Shots Conceded’ on the Premier League website, I have added together Goals Conceded, Saves and Blocks for each club to determine an approximate number of shots conceded. This does not include shots off target.)
Nick Pope once again leads the rankings for shots conceded. In fact, he has faced approximately 39% more than the other two and yet has kept more clean sheets than the pair. It seems his number of clean sheets is not down to the quality of the defence in front one him.
Another fair assumption to make would be that despite conceding more shots, another goalkeeper might make a larger percentage of saves per shot conceded. Let’s have a look.
Save Percentage: (source: fbref.com)
Nick Pope – 71%
Dean Henderson – 75%
Jordan Pickford – 63%
Dean Henderson makes 4% more saves per goal he concedes than Nick Pope and 12% more than Jordan Pickford. In this metric, Henderson outperforms Pope but only by 4%. I would argue, looking holistically at all compared metrics, Pope still remains the first choice but I will happily concede this round to Henderson!
Playing out from the back is a staple of the current English footballing set up from as early as the U15’s. Speaking in 2018, England U15 head coach Kevin Betsy described building from the goalkeeper as “important for the long-term development of England players and teams.” It is a footballing philosophy which is still ever prevalent in the first team.
Consequently, whoever Southgate chooses as number 1 will need to be adept with both hands and feet.
Completed Passes: (source: premierleague.com)
Nick Pope – 1007
Dean Henderson – 934
Jordan Pickford – 1184
Rather unsurprisingly, Jordan Pickford leads this metric as he plays in a team which is the most comfortable in possession.
In 19/20: Everton average 46.5%, Sheffield United average 43.3% and Burnley average 41.2%. (source: Transfermarkt)
It is fair to assume the goalkeeper who plays in the team with the most possession would have the most completed passes as the 2 are directly proportional. Once again it is Nick Pope who bucks the trend; having the 2nd highest pass completion rate but playing in the team with the worst overall possession.
As a result, it is crucial that Pope capitalises on his passing opportunities as they are statistically more infrequent than those Henderson and Pickford enjoy.
An important caveat under consideration is that there isn’t a relative world of difference between 934 passes and 1184. According to the Premier League pass rankings for goalkeepers; Pickford is 3rd, Pope 6th and Henderson 10th. They are all fairly adept passers of the ball meaning whilst Pope appears the stronger candidate overall, all 3 would fit well into an England set up that plays out from the back.
It is extremely hard to quantify a single players value to their respective team, almost even more so for goalkeepers as their role is acutely unique compared to the rest of the starting 11. Additionally, for keepers, you can’t work out how well a team performs with them and without them with any accuracy as they tend to start the majority of fixtures in a season.
The final factor under consideration and one which I imagine will play on the minds of Gareth Southgate and the rest of the selectors is age.
Nick Pope – 28
Dean Henderson – 23
Jordan Pickford – 26
Henderson is the youngest by a considerable margin meaning he arguably has the most ‘potential.’ He has also represented England 23 times at youth level from U16 to U21.
Comparatively, Pope has played for the National side on 2 occasions but never played for the youth set-up.
(Pickford is somewhat exempt from this category having played 74 times for England from U16 to senior level! – Making him the established historic favourite)
Henderson has been involved at youth level which I would imagine puts him in better favour as following on from youth coach Kevin Betsy’s comments; players are taught to play ‘the England way’ from an early age. This may work in his favour as he is deemed as having the appropriate skill set to work in an England footballing system.
I will admit, this is not an unfair point! It is rooted in truth.
Another angle in which the age debate could be viewed is that Nick Pope has 5 years more experience than Henderson making him less prone to rash decisions. This could be a quality the England set up are keen on considering the profile of International football matches.
Depending on the selection strategy England decide to implement prior to the Nations League, Pope or Henderson could be donning the No. 1 jersey. It certainly feels like after the success of the 2018 World Cup and with the delay in Euro 2020, English football is at somewhat of a crossroads.
England may see Henderson as a long-term option and see it fitting to blood him in as soon as possible or they may try the more experienced and ever-so-slightly-better performing Nick Pope.
It is important, I feel, to assess the fragility of a player’s place at the top during writing this piece. Merely 2 years ago, Jordan Pickford dragged the England national team kicking and screaming through their first World Cup penalty shootout, in doing so dispelling the ghost that had haunted England since Waddle’s missed penalty in Italia ’90.
Yet in the following 2 years, he has been the subject of fairly comprehensive abuse from rival fans and even his own. His costly mistake against Liverpool in December 2018 is still talked about 18 months later. Pickford let the ball bobble out of his hands for Divock Origi to head home the winner deep into added time. A comical mistake but still an insignificant one in the context of his historic heroics.
Pickford tumbled from Legend to Laughingstock in a mere 5 months in the eyes of the masses. Football fans are a fickle bunch.
Pope, Henderson and Pickford have done all they can to convince Southgate of their value this season considering none will be playing European football in August. I don’t envy the role of the selectors making the ultimate decision. I would love to see Nick Pope don the famous shirt come September. In doing so he would follow in his manager’s footsteps, truly giving the people of Proudsville another reason to smile!