Traditionally we always have a good goalkeeper, regardless of how bad the rest of our team is performing. Infact, I'd go as far to say that in recent years the form of the likes of Vito Mannone in that famous 'great escape' run, and Simon Mignolet in the 2012-2013 season, have been the difference between salvation and relegation for Sunderland in the Premier League.
Having a competent goalkeeper you are fully confident in is a basic requirement for a side threatened by relegation. Having a stopper that you know is going to pull you out the mire from time to time - a keeper that often strikes fear into opposition attackers by sometimes asserting himself and being particularly vocal, for example - is often the key component to whether or not a poor team finishes in the bottom three or in the middle of the pack and for a club like Sunderland we must never be in a position where we have a player that simply plays because he has no other competition. Lack of competition breeds inconsistency, laziness and quite often it leaves the player in question in a position where they never have any motivation to step up their game.
Sadly - and despite proving his quality at times last season - we've found ourselves in an uncompromising position with Costel Pantilimon that I feel has been largely ignored by the majority of our fans. He's playing like a man whose position is not under threat. For a club like ours it's not something we can just accept if we're going to stay in this league.
Time and time again we lose possession in key areas because of his awful distribution. He cannot kick. He's uncomfortable when a ball is played onto his left foot. His throwing down the pitch is non-existent - watching Huerelho Gomes launch the ball three-quarters of the way down the field on Saturday for Watford had me wondering if I've ever seen Pantilimon launch the ball out from the back to one of his wingers.
He struggles massively with saving close range shots. This season he's conceded far too many goals where the ball has went under him or through his legs. Ighalo's goal at the weekend was another where the ball came straight at him, bounced and fumbled over the line. Joel Campbell's opening goal for Arsenal last week went underneath him and through his legs. Giroud's header for the second went in at the near post which Pantilimon was actually covering - he didn't even move. For the third it was straight at him, he got his hand to it, yet it still went past. These are just a few examples off the top of my head, but examples nonetheless where I think he could have done better.
I'm not excusing the defending that lead to those goal-scoring opportunities, mind. I think it's fairly evident we need to improve defensively and I'd imagine that Sam has earmarked signing an experienced, top class defender as a priority when the transfer window re-opens in January.
Clearly, Vito Mannone is not seen as quality competition for him. Having lost his place to Pantilimon last year Mannone looked rusty on the odd occasion he was given an opportunity. Three managers - Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce - have all ran the rule over them both yet elected to go with Costel as their number one.
If we have the opportunity to recall in January I'd be seriously considering bringing back Jordan Pickford to the club and making him our number one. He's proven that he can hang after a string of successful loan spells with Football League clubs and his spell on loan at Preston North End in the Championship this season has been nothing short of brilliant, breaking their club record for most consecutive clean sheets.
Pickford is playing so well, infact, that Preston fans are desperate to see him stay at their club. After earning the Man of the Match award in their draw with Birmingham last night Preston manager Simon Grayson said of Pickford, 'We're very delighted that Sunderland have allowed him to be at our football club. The lad's got a bright future wherever he's going to be. We're just happy to have him and help with his development.'
Clearly, his quality is undeniable. Having kept twelve clean sheets this season so far for Grayson's side Pickford has also firmly staked his claim as the first choice goalkeeper for England U21s, and earlier this month Sam Allardyce admitted he's been tracking his progress at Preston. I'd imagine he's in two minds as to whether or not we should bring him back to Sunderland or leave him there until the end of the season.
The counter-argument for bringing him back early from his loan spell is that he's obviously developing brilliantly by playing regularly at a decent level but the fact of the matter is that he's our player and right now we could do with him in our squad. It's not common for goalkeepers to be dropped after a poor run of form. That said, I think in a cut-throat environment where Premier League survival depends upon every single player performing to the best of their ability we cannot afford to have passengers in our side. Right now, it feels as though Pantilimon is struggling and could benefit from being made aware that his position in the team is under threat.
Some of you might think I'm being harsh here (and, if you do, please leave a comment below), and maybe I am. I'm not denying that there have been times this season and last where he's single-handedly kept us in games but I feel more than anyone in the squad he's the one who knows he'll play every week if fit, no matter what. That isn't healthy.