‘Carlo can help him’ – Ancelotti’s past can guide Pickford to iron out errors
For a second the question hung heavily in the air. “Carlo, are you worried about the form of Jordan Pickford?”
The reply was delivered deadpan; a largely inscrutable expression but that famous eyebrow arched just enough to suggest extra emphasis to his words.
“No, I’m not worried.”
That was it. No further expansion from a manager who often speaks with relaxed candour to the media or, having played this cat-and-mouse game for some time, reels off a little more by way of context. “No. Next question…” he might have added.
At that point he’d already fielded one question about his goalkeeper in the press conference following Saturday’s Merseyside derby draw. The game saw the 26-year-old return to the limelight for a combination of things, good and bad.
Ancelotti, understandably, was focusing on the positive parts of the England international’s afternoon.
“He played a good game like the others,” he said. “Some good saves… a good performance.”
It was an eventful one, that’s for sure. From the bad: the rush-of-blood tackle on Virgil van Dijk, that on another day would have seen Pickford sent off and Liverpool awarded a penalty, or the weak attempt to stop Jordan Henderson’s late strike, ruled out by VAR. Then the good; stunning saves to deny Trent Alexander-Arnold’s goalbound free kick or a game-saving effort to thwart Joel Matip’s header.
This was Pickford’s season in a microcosm — alarming, encouraging, perplexing.
His Everton team-mates are closing ranks around him. “He kept us in the game,” one source close to the first team told The Athletic. “He’s not a malicious lad and didn’t mean to hurt Van Dijk. Jordan’s becoming an easy target for some at the moment but he’ll be fine. Everyone here is around him.”
It’s an understandable stance. Pickford remains popular in the dressing room and the Goodison siege mentality was only enforced by what was viewed as erroneous criticism their team-mate received for his role in the penalty conceded by Kyle Walker for England against Denmark last week.
And yet, were it not for the vagaries of VAR, the manner in which Henderson’s late shot beat him would have triggered further scrutiny. Pickford’s attempt to stop it with his left arm, only for the ball to spin over him and drop agonisingly over the line, felt reminiscent of other costly moments last season.
It would also have been the fourth time this season, twice against Fleetwood Town and once against Brighton, that he had cost his side a goal.
So what is Ancelotti going to do about it? How has he responded previously during his illustrious career when his man between the sticks became an issue?
The initial answer is with tact. At Real Madrid he was careful to protect Iker Casillas from the hyper-criticism and brickbats of the Spanish media, when many doubted the Bernabeu legend’s future following a high profile error in the 2014 Champions League final. His indecision from a corner allowed Diego Godin to score for Atletico but Real recovered to win convincingly.
Nevertheless, after his subsequently unconvincing displays in that summer’s World Cup, there were question marks. His place came further under threat with Keylor Navas having joined Madrid after an altogether more impressive individual World Cup performance with Costa Rica.
“Everyone has faith in him,” insisted Ancelotti, who has emphasised his “total confidence” in Pickford. That faith did not translate into always picking the ageing Casillas, but his phased withdrawal from ever-present to Champions League man was done carefully.
Manuel Neuer, though, was in his prime when Ancelotti arrived at Bayern Munich in 2016. The renowned “sweeper keeper” had little worries with the ball at his feet but Ancelotti still encouraged a few slight refinements.
“When Carlo went to Bayern he was a bit concerned Neuer was overplaying for the sake of it at the back,” says a source close to the Everton manager, who has watched his career closely. “He spoke to him and said ‘Look I’m very happy with your long passing but when it’s in and around your feet it can be difficult sometimes and you don’t always have to try to play it short’.
“Carlo encourages his goalkeepers to start the play but crucially he wants them to be smart about when to pass it and when to just do the basics.”
It is this emphasis on the goalkeeping basics, stopping shots and avoiding danger, that Ancelotti will continue to impress upon England’s No 1.
It is the point he made after overplaying between Michael Keane and Pickford cost Everton a goal against Fleetwood. “The first goal was not an individual mistake, we passed the ball back to Jordan and it was a really difficult ball,” he said. “We could have behaved differently, so we didn’t do that well. We want to build up from the back but when there is no risk. If it is risky it is not good, we can concede a goal like we did tonight and it is a good lesson for the future. Jordan was not the only one.”
Encouragingly, Pickford seems to be listening. In the face of Liverpool’s relentless press, his distribution on Saturday was impressive. He made more passes into Liverpool’s half than anyone, with 28 long passes, completing 11.
“At times it’s like Pickford feels he has to be ‘The Man’, adds the source. “He has to try and show what he can do with his feet or that he’s ostentatiously in control but that feels like overcompensating.
“In Carlo he’s got a manager who can help. He will remind him what got him his move to a big club; keeping the ball out. He will take him back to basics and if he doesn’t listen, in the end he’ll have to drop him but Carlo handles these things diplomatically and you can tell he’s making sure he gives Pickford every chance to play his way out of this. He’s propping up his confidence every opportunity he gets.”
If Pickford cannot regain some degree of consistency, Ancelotti hinted after the game that his deadline-day signing, Sweden international Robin Olsen, is here to do more than sit on the bench until his loan ends next summer.
For now, though, his first choice is Pickford, the enigma, the keeper always on the cusp lately of the sublime or the ridiculous.
He lived to fight another day on Saturday, and nobody at Everton has lost faith. But for all his diplomacy and belief in a goalkeeper who also retains Gareth Southgate’s backing, Ancelotti will not blindly persist for too long if Pickford cannot rediscover the form which brought him to Merseyside and took his country to a World Cup semi-final two years ago.