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Comparing the 'Keepers: Pickford's return will provide a welcome boost

Jordan Pickford's return to first team action will see him compete with Vito Mannone for the goalkeeper's shirt. Who would you prefer to see between the sticks?

Swansea City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The timely news that Jordan Pickford has returned to training has provided a welcome boost to a Sunderland side scrapping in yet another relegation battle.

While Vito Mannone recorded back-to-back clean sheets against Tottenham and Crystal Palace, Saturday's capitulation at home to Southampton was a reminder that the Italian cannot be relied upon on a consistent basis.

Admittedly, Manolo Gabbiadini's opener benefited from a deflection, but Mannone was flatfooted, the result of him attempting to backtrack towards his goal. The ball was unlikely to head towards the far post with a player either side of the Saints forward. But Mannone failed to cover his near post and was consequently unable to get a strong hand to the ball.

Sunderland v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

He was also beaten too easily for Gabbiadini's second, and while Shane Long's goal was well taken, it could be argued that Mannone was slow to get down to it.

This isn't meant as a stinging criticism of Mannone, and it may come across as being harsh. There were ten more players on the pitch on Saturday and he was not necessarily the biggest problem. But a team like Sunderland, who are placed under almost relentless pressure each game, need a goalkeeper that they can depend on. And unfortunately Mannone just doesn't cut the mustard, particularly in a battle with Pickford.

But let's take a closer look at how they compare.

Pickford has made 16 league appearances this season, while Mannone has featured in nine. Pickford has made 73 saves, with Mannone making 41. Interestingly, both make a save every 20 minutes and 4.6 per game in total on average, but it's in terms of goals conceded that some disparity emerges. 27 goals conceded represents an average of 1.69 per game for Pickford. Mannone, on the other hand, has allowed 19 with an average of 2.1.

Mannone, statistically, makes the same number of saves as Pickford, but is allowing more goals than his teammate. He has faced 59 shots on target - an average of 6.6 per game, while Pickford has faced 102 - an average of 6.4 per game. A very small difference. But the difference in save percentages is far greater and tells the real story, with Mannone standing at just 67.8%. Pickford, on the other hand, has saved 73% of the shots on target that he has faced.

Both are good shot stoppers, but Pickford seems more instinctive and has better reflexes, sometimes making extremely difficult saves look easy. Mannone also has a tendency to parry shots back into the penalty area.

Being able to save shots well is not enough for a goalkeeper in the modern era. Goalkeepers are now expected to build attacks from the back - ball distribution has become one of the key traits that managers look for. Pep Guardiola removed Joe Hart for his supposed lack of ability with the ball at his feet, while Jurgen Klopp signed Loris Karius for his distribution skills.

And again, Pickford comes out on top in this area. In terms of total distribution, Pickford slightly edges Mannone with 51% accuracy, compared to the Italian's 49%. He also averages 10 metres more than Mannone in terms of distribution length, helping Sunderland to get further up the pitch and away from their own goal - Pickford's average length is 50m, while Mannone averages just 40m.

With Sunderland rarely attempting to play out from the back, it's important that the goalkeeper makes a respectable level of accurate passes to his teammates in order to relieve pressure on the goal. The nature of the position and the distance between goalkeeper and attackers means that this number won't be too high. But Pickford manages to record a more-than-decent number, particularly considering his average distribution length of 50m. He makes 11.3 accurate long passes per game, failing with another 16.7, while Mannone makes just 6 accurate long passes and 16 inaccurate long passes. This gives Pickford a 40% long pass accuracy, with Mannone trailing well behind at just 27.%

But it's not just the accuracy of Pickford's distribution that has impressed - it's the speed in which he distributes the ball, particularly in counter-attacking situations from an opposition set-piece. Combined with his accuracy, Pickford's quick release can be a dangerous weapon for a Sunderland side who are likely to rely on counters to win games.

One of the main criticisms of Mannone, especially on Saturday, has been his inability or unwillingness to release the ball quickly. Jermain Defoe was visibly frustrated each time that the Italian failed to attempt to seek him out. The statistics suggests that Mannone may not be confident in his ability to launch a counter attack with the ball in his hands, with this accounting for just 23% of his total distribution. Pickford, on the other hand, weighs in with 37%, and is capable of inch-perfect, quick passes, as seen below.

Pickford, as David Moyes has alluded to, needs to slow down in terms of his distribution at times - he needs to continue to learn when is the right time to release the ball, and when isn't. Giving the ball straight back to the opposition won't help anybody. But that will come with time and more experience, and it's certainly not a bad 'problem' to have.

Pickford is also more commanding of his area. Constantly talking to his defenders, he seems comfortable facing high balls. The youngster has made 62 successful claims in the box, while Mannone has made 23. Pickford has also made 13 punches compared to just two from the Italian.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Both have made errors this season. Pickford allowed Jay Rodriguez's strike to go under him at Southampton to give Saints a late point. And while Sunderland lost 3-0 to Everton in the following game, Pickford kept the score respectable in truth. Mannone also bounced back well from his Burnley horror show in the 2-2 draw with Liverpool.

But it's difficult to feel confident with Mannone in goal - there's always a lingering feeling that a mistake is just around the corner. He has been a decent servant to the club and will continue to be one should he be displaced by Pickford - he's dealt with competition and being relegated to the bench previously without any fuss. The memories of the League Cup run, and Old Trafford in particular, will be everlasting, but the goalkeeper's shirt should be Pickford's for as long as he wants it.

Pickford simply must play as soon as he is fit to do so, although it's important that he's not rushed back into action ahead of schedule. He's the future of Sunderland, or certainly a huge part of it at least, and needs to play as many games as possible - for the benefit of both himself and Sunderland.

His return will provide a much-needed boost for David Moyes.

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