Connect in the back of the net

They say a true marker of a goalkeeper’s ability is how reliable he is when suddenly called upon in a game where he is being given very little to do. Jack Butland was given that test at Southampton on Saturday, passing it only by virtue of Victor Wanyama’s inaccuracy, the midfielder stabbing his effort wide after Butland dropped a routine catch. Still, the 22 year old managed to hold on to his fifth clean sheet of the season and Stoke’s third in succession as they won 0-1 at St Mary’s.

“I came out aggressive and if you do that you are always likely to win the battle anyway”, said the goalkeeper, seemingly unfazed by his error. “I’m confident. It doesn’t affect me. I came, tried to do the right thing and got away with it. It was an awkward one.”

It gave an insight into how confident Butland is and, after replacing Asmir Begovic at Stoke seamlessly enough to secure his spot as England’s number two just four months into the season, it is certainly justified.

 

Rising in prominence

His latest clean sheet came just a couple of hours before Joe Hart conceded four in Manchester City’s home defeat to Liverpool, but despite Butland replacing Hart at half-time in the 2-0 win over France at Wembley, plus earning a first-cap as a shadow side won 0-3 in Lithuania in October, he will find it extremely difficult to dislodge the 28 year old in time for next summer’s European Championships in France.

Roy Hodgson is likely to take Butland as Hart’s deputy, jumping ahead of Norwich’s John Ruddy, West Brom’s Ben Foster and QPR’s Robert Green in what represents an alarming rise to prominence.

Butland played just three Premier League games last season, keeping clean sheets in two of them, as he saw his appearances limited to the League and FA Cup in second fiddle to Begovic, but after travelling to the Czech Republic as the number one for England’s under-21s in the summer Mark Hughes saw no issue with cashing in on Begovic and handing the number one shirt to the stopper signed from Birmingham City under Tony Pulis two years ago for just £3.5 million.

 

Clark’s prophecy

That is now beginning to look every inch the bargain fee Lee Clark, Birmingham’s as-then manager, predicted it would be. Butland had been named that season’s young player of the year at St Andrews and, after knocking back advances from Chelsea, Clark feared the Midlands club were losing a goalkeeper who had the potential to be the best in Europe. It may have taken a while to establish himself in the Potteries but how wise does that contract extension signed back in March to keep him at the Britannia until the summer of 2019 look now.

Not quite at the level of Clark’s prophecy yet- despite Harry Redknapp’s comparison to David De Gea– the 22 year old has demonstrated enough in the short space of time spent as Hughes’s number one to suggest that it could not be too long before he gets there. Only Everton’s Tim Howard with 43 has made more saves than Butland’s 41 so far this season while he has taken 50 claims at a success rate of 98%, making him the Premier League’s most effective goalkeeper when coming for crosses.

The only aberration came in that spill to the feet of Wanyama in the game with Southampton which formed Butland’s fourth clean sheet in his last four away league games and elevated Stoke to eleventh, within two points of sixth-placed West Ham.

Make no mistake Butland has been integral to that climb up the table as much as the excellent Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri, or the endeavour of Jonathan Walters, or the reborn Marko Arnautovic have been in attack, emerging from matches at Norwich and Newcastle with man of the match awards to provide foundation for Stoke to claim vital points.

 

Superb showing against Arsenal and a threat to Hart’s starting position

Butland also gave a superb showing of his credentials in the match at Arsenal, pulling off a series of fine stops, 10 in total, but could not prevent Stoke from slipping to a 2-0 defeat. With 32 he has made more diving saves than any other Premier League goalkeeper so far this term and blending together a fine mix of speedy reactions, agility and calm, aggressive domination of his box, Hart can definitely be excused for feeling a slight vulnerability to his England place despite securing seven clean sheets and conceding only three goals over nine games in the qualifying process for next year’s tournament in France.

Mistakes like dropping the ball like he did vs Norwich will only benefit the Stoke City man if Hodgson, no matter how unlikely it is, is forced into a decision.

“Joe’s an incredible keeper who’s established himself for a long time now. But, for me, I want to put pressure on him” said the 22 year old before England rounded off their qualifying campaign with the win in Vilnius.

If Butland continues in this vain of form, helped by the backing of his club boss who believes his ‘keeper will play many games at international level, that pressure may become too much for Hart and Hodgson to ignore.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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