Chris Young: Will Jordan Pickford now stay as Sunderland number one?

Chewing gum calmly in the White Hart Lane tunnel at 12.40pm, Jordan Pickford displayed little hint that this was the biggest game of his fledgling career.

Monday, 18th January 2016, 11:00 am
Jordan Pickford. Picture by FRANK REID

When Pickford was faced with the microphone of veteran broadcaster Ray Stubbs afterwards (before the 21-year-old had even taken a shower) the goalkeeper was similarly composed – matter-of-factly accepting that this was all part of the Premier League circus and he better get on with it.

It summed up the confidence Pickford forged during his time at Preston in the Championship, the belief he has in his own game and the ice-cool temperament on his shoulders.

There’s stark comparisons to be drawn between Pickford and the biggest success story of Sunderland’s academy, Jordan Henderson.

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Both have that single-minded focus on their football, with all the other trappings of life as a Premier League player put decisively on the back-burner.

But what now for Pickford? Was his Premier League bow at White Hart Lane the beginning of a long hike in Sunderland’s starting XI?

It’s not inconceivable that Vito Mannone could return for this Saturday’s mammoth encounter against Bournemouth after Sunderland shipped four goals against Spurs, even if none of them could be levelled at Pickford.

Yet the praise which has come Pickford’s way in the last 48 hours has been thoroughly justified.

Pickford, together with Patrick van Aanholt, was arguably Sunderland’s man of the match – making a couple of excellent finger-tip saves and again showcasing his laser-guided distribution.

The Washington-born stopper needed a helping hand from his team-mates to keep a clean sheet and that wasn’t forthcoming, whether it was Lee Cattermole’s botched attempt at a goal-line clearance, Mousa Dembele going too easily past Billy Jones or Jan Kirchhoff enduring the debut from hell.

Sam Allardyce wanted to give Pickford a chance to challenge for the number one spot after returning from his loan spell at Preston and he may well have elbowed his way past Mannone and Costel Pantilimon to grasp that mantle, for the short-term at least.

Where does that leave Mannone and Pantilimon?

Clearly, Sunderland have been looking to get rid of one of them this month to raise a few quid that can be invested in other areas of the side.

Neither will be particularly content now though.

There might be an orderly queue forming outside of Allardyce’s office to find another employer.

Despite his tender years, Pickford is currently the more confident of the trio and Allardyce just needs that to rub off on those attempting to protect Sunderland’s goal.

The win at Swansea made a gruelling week of three away games a profitable one, yet Sunderland shipped nine goals during that trio of long-haul trips.

Considering Allardyce has been renowned throughout his managerial career for making teams solid and difficult to beat, it remains too easy for opposition sides to find the net against this Sunderland team.

For 40-odd minutes at Spurs, Sunderland were excellent with their well-drilled team shape – squeezing any pockets of space available to the hosts and forcing them to go wide.

But Sunderland continue to be hamstrung by basic lapses of concentration.

It happened at Swansea when the Black Cats conceded within two minutes of the Welsh side being reduced to 10 men and it was a similar scenario in north London – Christian Eriksen slightly fortuitously finding the net so frustratingly soon after Patrick van Aanholt’s beautifully worked opener.

It’s been the same all season. Too many of these players switch off at the crucial moments, when astute game management is required.

Fresh faces at the back over the next fortnight may be the only cure, particularly after Kirchhoff showed how far he is from being match-fit during his harrowing 30 minute bow in a red and white shirt.

It’s far, far too soon to be writing off the German, but after just two minutes of competitive football for Bayern Munich this season, Kirchhoff is clearly not going to be able to make an instant positive impact on Sunderland’s defensive resolve.

It might not be until March-time before Kirchhoff is genuinely match-fit, and by then...

The tiresome pursuit of Lorient centre-half Lamine Kone really still needs to come to a happy ending for Sunderland.

In fairness to Kirchhoff though, Allardyce didn’t present him with favourable circumstances, as the change of system – when Sunderland had been relatively comfortable with a 4-2-3-1 – unnecessarily swung the pendulum decisively in Spurs’ favour.

Allardyce’s motivation of introducing fresh legs to a side which was ailing with fatigue, was an understandable one, but the change of formation had an overwhelmingly negative impact.

Sunderland will surely not deploy five at the back against Bournemouth, in another one of those test-of-nerve encounters at the basement, particularly with the Black Cats subsequently facing the two Manchester clubs, plus Liverpool.

This will be far more testing than the last two meetings against their fellow strugglers too, with Aston Villa utterly dire and Swansea dispirited, plus playing the majority of the game with 10 men.

If Sunderland don’t improve defensively against a side who have just splashed out £10million on striker Benik Afobe – up and running for Bournemouth after scoring in the 3-0 win over Norwich – then it won’t matter how assured Pickford immediately is as a Premier League player.