When Simon Mignolet left Sunderland in the summer, it seemed logical that Keiren Westwood would get an opportunity to stake his claim for the number one shirt. As expected, despite Vito Mannone's arrival, Westwood has started every Premier League game thus far this season. Mignolet was always going to be a tough act to follow after establishing himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the league, becoming an extremely popular figure on Wearside in the process. Westwood has so far struggled to live up to his Belgian predecessor, but there are a plethora of reasons why Sunderland's next permanent manager should stick with the Irishman.
When Westwood joined the club in 2011 Mignolet had not yet reached the level of goalkeeper that would see Liverpool pay a vast sum of money for his services this year. Indeed, the competition between the two was initially very close after Westwood put in a string of decent performances during his debut season while Mignolet was out with injury. However, once the Belgian returned to the starting XI against Manchester City, he grew from strength to strength and there was no way back for Westwood.
During his short stint between the sticks Westwood was far from error free, but the standard of his displays highlighted his ability to play at this level. Now, having been starved of first team football for a year and a half, it is perhaps no surprise that it is taking him time to find his feet. As mentioned, Mignolet also took time to settle and although he is younger and was less experienced when initially brought into the side, there are parallels between the two players. Patience with Mignolet was rewarded and by the same token, Westwood also deserves more time.
Although the standard of his goalkeeping has been questionable, there are also other factors which have impacted upon Westwood's performances this season. Against Manchester United on Saturday, Kevin Ball made two changes to the back four that leaked three goals against Liverpool the week before. That back four utilised against Liverpool had played in the previous game against Peterborough United and it was the first time this season that the same defence had been selected for consecutive games.
Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that a lack of stability at the back has resulted in some chaotic defending, particularly from set pieces. Arguably, as the one consistent figure in defence, Westwood should have taken charge and taken a proactive role in organising his back four. Alternatively, the lack of stability in front of him has merely exacerbated matters, making a difficult situation for a goalkeeper coming to terms with being first choice unnecessarily tougher.
Although he is 28 years old most of Westwood's career has been spent in the lower divisions and his move to Wearside was perceived as a big opportunity to test himself in the top flight. Whilst 28 might be the peak of a player's career in many positions, for a goalkeeper it is still relatively young. There is plenty of time for him to develop, which is in itself a reason to stick with him. With a settled back four in front of him, there is no reason he cannot follow in Mignolet's footsteps and grow into the role. Taking him out of the team now would only serve to shatter any confidence he has managed to build and also destabilise the defence yet further.
Signs of improvement are already visible; on Saturday, Westwood looked something like his best against Manchester United. He had no chance with either goal, but crucially dealt with set pieces comfortably and was a far more commanding figure than in previous matches. His confidence appeared to grow with each claimed cross and his decision to come off his line and make his presence felt was a welcome sight. In previous games where goals have been conceded from corners, Westwood has often remained rooted to his line, failing to assist an already shaky defence.
Perhaps this had something to do with a general lack of organisation under Di Canio. Since his dismissal and Ball's implementation as caretaker manager the team has looked far better prepared. Although Sturridge was able to steal a goal from a corner - quite literally, given that he bundled the ball in illegally with his arm - with Westwood once again glued to the goal line, there was always likely to be a transitional period with a new manager employing a different system for the players to become accustomed to. Saturday's game against Manchester United suggests that lessons have already been learned.
The recent away match at West Brom was probably Westwood's lowest ebb and it also marked the end of Di Canio's reign as head coach. There are already signs that the players are benefitting from his departure. For example, it was telling that when Ji came onto the pitch against Manchester United, he looked a changed man. His body language and attitude were a far cry from the desolate looking player who sat alone in the dugout at Crystal Palance. Similarly, Giaccherini has grown in stature in the three games since his Italian compatriot departed. Perhaps, like both of these players, Westwood will see his confidence grow under the tutelage of a better man manager than Di Canio.
Even if Westwood is declared to be simply not good enough - and some people may well hold that opinion - there is an issue with replacing him, stemming from the lack of a quality alternative within the squad. The aforementioned Mannone cannot be fairly judged on his single League Cup appearance but he hardly instilled confidence by conceding two very poor goals against MK Dons. Given the lack of first team experience throughout his career and Sunderland's current plight, this is not the time to bring him in behind an unsettled defence. It would be a sizeable risk to do so and if he turned out to be worse than Westwood, bringing the Irishman back after dropping him would mean giving him time to regain his confidence and get back into the swing of playing first team football. This is time Sunderland simply do not have.
This is not to say Westwood is perfect as he certainly is not. Whilst there are possible reasons for some of his subpar performances, he must also take responsibility. There is no excuse for weak punching from crosses, the type of which led to Ridgewell bagging West Brom's second or the inept attempt to stop Amalfitano's shot in the same match. Ultimately though, there is enough to suggest he warrants persevering with for the time being at least, with stability at the back an absolute must.