The myth of Nick Pope’s ‘poor’ distribution

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Leading up to both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 (which famously took place in 2021), a common commentary surrounded Nick Pope, and the potential reasons for Southgate’s favouritsm toward Jordan Pickford. “Pope’s distribution isn’t as good,” was said on repeat, almost as though all the pundits of the English game together as one big monster blob out to slight Nick Pope and find justifications for something that few were willing to admit made little sense. Despite Nick Pope’s heroics at Burnley for the past five years, and the potential that he will keep them in the Premier League almost single-handedly for another season, Pickford remains England’s firm number one.

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Let’s be clear. Jordan Pickford has been outstanding in international play for Southgate’s England – relishing the big occasion and flourishing under the solidity of a possession-heavy back-three. But anyone using Pickford’s distribution as a justification for his continued inclusion may want to check again. Pope, in a team that don’t keep much of the ball whatsoever, is asked to pump long passes up the field more than any other goalkeeper. In fact, he “launches” 74.8% of his passes. This means that nearly 3/4 of the passes he attempts reach a distance of over 40-yards. When it comes to goal kicks, he’s launched 92.5% of his passes in toward Burnley’s aerial duel specialists up front, rather than Burnley making any attempt to play out from the back. That shows in the fact that the Burnley man has attempted and completed less than 1 short pass per 90, in comparison to 25.6 long passes (over 30-yards), which just so happens to be the most in the Premier League.

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Yes, it’s true. Nick Pope is not asked to play out from the back at Burnley, and you could reasonably raise question marks as to whether or not he’d be capable of fulfilling a role in a possession-based team, like England. But without giving him that time, we’ll never find out. Because here’s the thing. Jordan Pickford is not asked to play out from the back at Everton, and you could reasonably raise question marks as to whether or not he’d be capable of fulfilling a role in a possession-based team. For all that he accomplishes in possession of the ball, he consistently ranks below Nick Pope in the numbers.

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Well, that’s because he attempts more long passes, isn’t it? (or “in’it?” as the Brits might say). Actually, no. Nick Pope attempts more long passes than any other player in the Premier League (25.6 per 90). Importantly though, Jordan Pickford ranks third on that list, behind Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold (24.2 per 90). Why is this important? It means that neither Pope nor Pickord play in teams that like to play out from the back. Sure, Pope’s launched nearly 75% of the passes he’s attempted. But Everton’s number one again ranks third in that category, at 65.8%. Well, Pickord must be better at completing those passes, right? Wrong. Pope has a better passing percentage when it comes to passes over 30 yards (41.6% to Pickford’s 34.8%), and over 40 yards (37.9% to 33.9%). But, that’s fine. Because Pickord’s passing range isn’t just about accuracy, but power and distance. He’s a viking warrior! SPARTA!

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I’m sorry to burst your bubble again…but Pope again reaches greater distance with his passes (53.3% to 51.5%). This one, evidently, might be down to Pickford’s slightly greater propensity toward shorter passes. After all, Pope attempts and completes less than 1 short pass per 90. But if you really want to go undercover and look at the data, Pickford’s completed and attempted less than 2 short passes per 90. In other words, the difference is not significant. In fact, it’s miniscule. In many regards, Pickord and Pope are remarkably similar at what they attempt to accomplish for their teams; and in many ways, Pope ranks as the superior one. Not only on distribution and pass completion from range, but on sweeping, shot stopping, cross claiming and height, which is genuinely important for covering the frame of the goal and allowing ease of access for his world class shot stopping and cross claiming ability.

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But this isn’t a knock on Nick Pope or Jordan Pickford. They are both fairly exceptional when it comes to passing range and playing that special long pass for their teams. In fact, they’re the only two keepers consistently playing passes into the final third, or passes that genuinely provide a threat to the other team’s goal. Ederson and Alisson may pull off the occasional wonder pass, but they are much more likely to keep the game ticking through simple short passes out from the back. Pickford and Pope are genuine game changers with their range, and England should be proud of the fact that they have two excellent long-range specialists, who could both showcase promise in a possession-based team if given the chance.

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Evidently, there are other keepers in the mix that Gareth Southgate could easily draw upon if he wants something different out of his side. Aaron Ramsdale’s save percentage and clean sheet percentage rank among some of the best in the world this year; while Dean Henderson’s saves per goal and goals against per 90 numbers were practically unrivalled in the world last season at United. Neither have any issue playing out from the back for their club teams, and complete short and ‘medium’ passes to a near 100% success rate (Henderson virtually 100%). England essentially have an embarrassment of riches in the number one position, and should be clamouring over the strengths of each and every single one of their keepers. But at the end of the day, Jordan Pickford simply cannot be Gareth Southgate’s number one on the basis of his distribution and ability to play out from the back. If that were the case, Nick Pope just might have the upper hand.

So there it is! The myth of Nick Pope’s ‘poor’ distribution. Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, Premier League related articles, and if you like goalkeepers, don’t forget to check out recent analysis on David De Gea and his legacy at Manchester United. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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