Jordan Pickford conceded his first goal of the tournament against Denmark
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Gianluigi Donnarumma, the Italy goalkeeper, was 17 years old when he replaced Gianluigi Buffon to make his debut for his national team. He had first appeared for AC Milan a year earlier, at 16, and was regarded as one of European football’s most promising talents long before he could drive a car or buy alcohol.
When Jordan Pickford was 17, he was loaned to Darlington. He later had spells with Alfreton Town, Burton Albion, Carlisle United, Bradford City and Preston North End, and he did not make his top-flight debut until he was almost 22.
The contrast in the respective journeys of Donnarumma and Pickford, opponents in Sunday’s European Championship final, could hardly be more stark. While Donnarumma was groomed for the top level, Pickford was forced to grind his way to this point.
The Italian is the product of the slick Milan academy system, while Pickford’s success was born, in part, of the bruising world of non-League football and his own single-minded determination. The differences do not end there. With his powerful 6ft 5in frame, Donnarumma is among the world’s most physically imposing keepers. Pickford, at a comparatively short 6ft 1in, is far more springy than domineering. Donnarumma has a calm authority, while Pickford has often played with the agitated energy befitting a man who once had “get the rave on” inscribed onto his boots.
Now 27, Pickford has gradually become a more relaxed goalkeeper over the past year. Gareth Southgate described him as being more “calm”, and Pickford himself told Telegraph Sport this summer that his use of a sports psychologist has helped him to tone down his hyperactive demeanour. There are still moments, though, when the old Pickford resurfaces. It was certainly a more frantic Pickford that buzzed between the goalposts in the first half of England’s semi-final victory over Denmark, when the pressure on Southgate’s side reached new levels of intensity. For a few uncomfortable minutes at Wembley, Pickford looked anxious and a little out of control. He gave the ball away cheaply, leading to a chance for Denmark’s Martin Braithwaite, and seemed nervy for a spell after that as Denmark briefly took control. For a little while each awkward moment seemed to lead to another awkward moment, until Pickford steadied his mind at the break and recovered his composure for the second half.
That phase of play before half-time, in which England conceded their first goal of the tournament, would have worried England supporters. Many still regard Pickford as the potential weak link in Southgate’s impressive defence, despite his ability to consistently bounce back from errors he has made.
Jordan Pickford and John Stones have a lively discussion
“Pickford is normally good at dealing with these setbacks in games,” David Preece, the former goalkeeper and now a goalkeeping coach, says. “But the occasion can stress you sometimes. What I would like to see from him is a little more composure after the mistakes.
“There is a lot of self-berating going on and he can sometimes beat himself up about mistakes he makes. That can put you in a negative mindset, and it puts a lot of pressure on the next action. You can get caught up in this feeling that you need tension to perform at your best, but as you mature you realise you would be much better off with a calmer attitude.”
With their contrasting approaches to playing the same position, one might assume that Donnarumma, who is set to join Paris Saint-Germain this summer, is the older player. Pickford occasionally has the air of a young goalkeeper, desperate to prove himself. This can work in his favour at times, and he has, of course, barely put a foot wrong in this tournament, but for sheer composure he does not come close to Donnarumma, the hero of Italy’s shoot-out victory over Spain. It is a simple fact of biology that Pickford cannot compete with Donnarumma when it comes to physical stature. “Donnarumma has a wingspan like an albatross,” Preece says. “His reach is just phenomenal. If he was a boxer, he could punch you from the other side of the ring. That is a massive asset for him and his technique is more reliable now, compared to when he first came into the Milan team as a teenager.”
Gianluigi Donnarumma saves the penalty of Alvaro Morata during the penalty shoot-out
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Would Donnarumma have saved Mikkel Damsgaard’s free-kick for Denmark on Wednesday? Pickford received some criticism for his failure to stop the strike, even though Denmark’s players had cleverly blocked his vision and the shot dipped so ferociously.
If it is an issue of stature, then that is clearly outside of Pickford’s control. His mindset, however, is all down to him. If he can stay as cool as his opposite number on Sunday, England’s tight defence will feel capable of securing perhaps the most important clean sheet in their recent history.