SAFC Analysis: Why Sunderland must keep faith with England Under-21 ace Jordan Pickford
All eyes were on Jordan Pickford ahead of kick-off at St Mary's Stadium on Saturday '“ including those of Charlie Austin.
Within minutes of the game kicking off, Austin wiped out Jordan Pickford inside the Sunderland penalty area.
A small warning, as if the 22-year-old keeper needed one, that he was in for a tough afternoon on the south coast.
And so it proved.
But while Southampton’s equaliser came from a mistake by Washington-born Pickford, he showed enough over the 90 minutes to prove he has a long-term future playing at this level.
Pickford has all the attributes of a top-class, modern day goalkeeper.
He is an excellent shot-stopper, he commands his box well, is vocal and his decision-making over when to catch and when to punch is impressive.
His main asset, is his pin-point, missile-seeking distribution.
Comfortable with the ball at his feet, he can pick out a Sunderland forward up the other end of the pitch with ease.
Jay Rodriguez’s goal aside, Pickford was excellent against Claude Puel’s Saints side, three times denying Austin.
Pickford, at least, had the last laugh in that particular duel – with Austin substituted after 74 minutes having not been able to find a way past the England Under-21 international.
Pickford though, understandably, looked distraught when the equaliser squirmed underneath him.
He punched the turf in sheer frustration, having done so much to keep Sunderland in the game only to then be at fault for their equaliser.
Could the Sunderland defence have done more to close Rodriguez down before his low shot from outside the penalty area?
Of course. But Pickford would still have expected to save a shot that was straight at him.
A harsh learning curve in the goldfish bowl that is the Premier League.
The pressure on the shoulders of Pickford was immense heading into the game.
Vito Mannone is the latest player to be added to Sunderland’s chronic injury list, with the Italian rupturing ligaments in his elbow.
It has left David Moyes with just Pickford and untested Under-23 goalkeeper Max Stryjek to fall-back on.
The need for an extra keeper before Wednesday night’s deadline is clear.
Moyes has spoken about the amount of keepers the club has been offered.
Joe Hart is an option.
Moyes has been asked about Hart in his pre and post-match interviews but has tellingly never ruled out a loan move for the England keeper.
It remains to be seen whether Hart would want to move to Wearside, with reported interest from Serie A side Torino.
Moyes, of course, would be mad not to enquire about a keeper of his quality.
But his £125,000 a week wages would prove a major stumbling block and it would need City to pay a significant chunk of it.
Hart, though, is also capable of making mistakes. England’s humiliating exit to Iceland at Euro 2016 proved that.
Therefore, Sunderland should look to keep faith with Pickford.
His potential is huge and he showed why there is so much talk about him against Southampton.
Bring in an experienced number two instead, on far less money than Hart would command, and reinvest that money further up the pitch instead.
Jermain Defoe needs help up front.
Adding another striker should be the priority.
The big news from Southampton was the return of Everton target Lamine Kone, the 27-year-old recovering from a back injury which had kept him sidelined for two games.
His future remains up in the air ahead of deadline day, although his appearance has given fresh hope he will remain on Wearside. Time will tell.
Pickford dusted himself down from the early Austin challenge to twice deny the former QPR man, first diving at his feet, six yards from goal, before producing a flying save to palm away a toe-punt.
In between, Dusan Tadic saw his fine effort sail just over.
It was a breathless opening 15 minutes on a balmy day. Sunderland weathered the early storm, with Pickford by far the busier of the goalkeepers.
Sunderland should have taken the lead through Kone, the Ivory Coast international sending his free-header wide after 25 minutes.
Moyes’ side showed far more attacking intent as the half wore on, with debutant Javier Manquillo providing width on the right.
Jack Rodwell sent a header wide before Pickford was again called upon to comfortably save Cedric’s low effort.
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first, with the Saints enjoying the better of the opening stages – Austin flagged offside so many times he could have taken the flag home with him.
Sunderland’s first attempt on target came from a tame Fabio Borini free-kick just past the hour mark, the forward grimacing as he took it. Soon he was subbed after a twinge in his groin.
Pickford was called upon again to deny sub Shane Long from giving Southampton the lead 70 minutes in, getting a strong hand on his effort.
Nathan Redmond then chanced his arm from a similar distance, Pickford turning his effort from the edge of the area round the post.
Sunderland had been under pressure for much of the second half but took the lead ten minutes from time.
Sub Jeremain Lens played in Defoe, who turned Saints skipper Jose Fonte, his trailing leg caught Defoe and referee Lee Mason had no hesitation pointing to the spot.
Defoe stepped up to thump the ball home, but Sunderland couldn’t hold on.
Sub Rodriguez chanced his arm from 25-yards and the ball found its way under Pickford. Late heartbreak for the young keeper, his teammates and the 2,000 plus travelling supporters.
But Sunderland are off the mark and there was enough from the performance to suggest brighter days lie ahead – once new additions and the injured players bolster the ranks.