Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane both completed 90 minutes in England's 4-0 European Championship qualifying victory over Bulgaria at Wembley on Saturday… and evertonfc.com was at the national stadium watching on.
Gareth Southgate was fairly gushing about Jordan Pickford on the eve of this match. Pickford, in the England manager’s view, has had an “incredible impact” on the Three Lions in the period since his debut in November 2017.
It was noticeable, though, that Southgate didn’t miss the opportunity when asked about Pickford to mention how the other goalkeepers in this squad – Tom Heaton of Aston Villa and Burnley’s Nick Pope – had caught his eye in training this week.
The England manager is hot on reminding his players of the queues forming for each shirt in the team.
He borrowed from the parlance of this country’s summer sport to explain nobody can be sure of their starting spot.
“We analyse our batting order every week,” said Southgate.
Pickford’s consistently climbing standards and appetite to improve, allied to his numbers moving in the right direction, suggest he’ll be remaining at the top of the order for some time.
Fellow Evertonian Michael Keane is quietly establishing himself in Southgate’s line-up, too. This was Keane’s eighth senior international appearance – six of them in competitive games – and he is ever-present in England’s European Championship qualifying campaign.
Keane is in the team for his stout brand of defending first and foremost. But Southgate is also a fan of the centre-back’s range and selection of passing.
Keane didn’t need to unfurl anything too expansive here. Certainly, in the opening half hour, his best out ball was the one to Raheem Sterling wide on the right and time and again Keane rapped passes into the Manchester City man’s feet.
The pass which enabled Sterling to create England’s opening goal on 24 minutes came from the unlikely source of visiting goalkeeper Plamen Iliev.
Bulgaria were largely unambitious in possession but prone nevertheless to the odd attempt at competing a succession of short passes perilously close to their own goalline.
They’d got away with it a few times when Iliev received the ball back from Georgi Sarmov. Iliev turned it in the general direction of left-sided centre-back Vasil Bozhikov but with little regard for trying to accurately find his man.
Bozhikov was a dead-man walking from the moment the ball left Iliev’s boot, Sterling steeling in and cutting back for Kane – surrounded by four red shirts but all of them dragged away from the England forward by this unexpected turn of events. Kane, then, had the simplest of tasks to score.
He was denied a second shortly before half time when Iliev kept out Kane’s header following a wicked Kieran Trippier cross.
Pickford, meantime, was having a quieter time of it. He saved low from Wanderson on five minutes and in the 31st minute clutched a Galin Ivanov header after Strahil Popov had escaped down the right to deliver.
In the intervening 26 minutes, Pickford had nothing to do. Nada. The downtime was a test of his concentration and clean sheets come in all shapes and sizes.
For Pickford, they are coming in a rush.
Ten in 15 Premier League matches for Everton – upping his shutout ratio in the top-flight from 20.8 to 27 per cent.
This zero against his name makes it clean sheets in 40 per cent of his 20 England games – a three per cent rise on the figure he boasted before kick-off.
Those are the numbers working in Pickford’s favour. A redoubtable goalkeeper maturing and refining his game all the time.
This tends to be how it goes with the very best sportsman. Steve Smith, the Australian batsman spending his summer torturing England’s bowlers, had a batting average of 29.52 from his first 11 Test matches.
Shortly after his 24th birthday Smith scored his maiden Test hundred – against England, who else? – and has spent the six years since boosting his figures. At last count he was averaging more than 63 and had struck 26 Test centuries.
Pickford really earned his crust in the minutes directly after the break. First he scampered from his line to smother at the feet of Wanderson. Pickford then resisted a thumping shot from the same player at his near post.
In the blink of an eye, Marcus Rashford was blazing into the visitors’ box and, as he tried to chop back onto his right foot, being caught by Nikolay Bodurov’s trailing leg.
Bodurov had been cautioned in the opening half for a tug on Rashford so blatant it was faintly comical.
Following his latest infringement, the defender had to watch Kane send his penalty into the top-right corner for 2-0.
If there is any such thing as a mercy substitution, then Bodurov’s withdrawal with 25 minutes remaining is probably what such an act looks like.
It is worth noting, too, that Keane has conceded only two goals as an England player.
One of those was against Germany on the night of his debut in March 2017 – a match from which he is the only English survivor in this squad.
Montenegro are the only other side to breach England on Keane’s watch and he promptly went up the other end and equalised, opening the way for Southgate’s team to win 5-1.
It was rotten luck for Keane to be booked on the half hour this evening. The 26-year-old got tight to Marcelinho in the Bulgarians’ half – Keane talked this week of how he wants to “get in strikers faces more”, at the right time – but nicked the forward’s ankles.
England’s superiority was apparent from the third minute, when Rashford had a shot charged down in the box.
Jordan Henderson met Danny Rose’s centre with a sweet volley too high to trouble Iliev on the quarter hour and Kane had drifted offside when he converted Sterling’s low cross four minutes later.
More botched Bulgarian defending 10 minutes after half-time was all the incentive Kane needed to claim possession and sprint onto a return pass from Rashford.
Sterling was making tracks in the centre and therefore able to convert when Kane thundered in his cross.
As England’s dominance grew, so the Bulgarians retreated further into their shell.
Keane and defensive partner Harry Maguire were routinely holding a line high in their opponents’ half. Keane crunched a pass from that position into Henderson. His reverse ball found the ever-willing Trippier, whose flat delivery was cleared.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Kane had the opportunity to complete his hat-trick when he was downed in the box by a clumsy challenge from Kristian Dimitrov, the man who had come on to spare Bodurov but not faring much better.
Kane lashed his penalty to Iliev’s right this time. It was a murderous strike and the keeper had no hope.
Dimitorv did achieve some redemption when he launched himself in the way of an on-target blast from left-back Rose. Iliev had his moment in the sun, too, saving with his face as Rashford tried to finish from close-range after an exchange of passes with Ross Barkley.
Pickford, meanwhile, was intent on preserving his clean sheet.
Ivanov curled a free-kick designed to deny the Everton man but Pickford sprung to his left and tipped over.
Keane was on a similar mission and he did well to prevent a cross reaching his box minutes from the end.
A comfortable night for England, then, with Kosovo up next in Southampton on Tuesday. A rewarding night, too, for the two Everton men in this team, both doing what they do best and adding another shutout to a fast-growing list of them.
Elsewhere, Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson started and finished Iceland's routine 3-0 home victory over Moldova.
Striker Kolbein Sigthorsson opened the scoring with a left-foot strike after 31 minutes in Reykjavik.
Birkir Bjarnason and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson were both on target following the restart as Iceland made it four wins from five in Euro 2020 qualifying.
Cenk Tosun completed 90 minutes for Turkey as Andorra threatened to put a dent in the Euro 2020 hopes of Senol Gunes's team.
The Turks swept aside France 2-0 three months ago but were forced to wait until the 89th minute to crack Andorra's resistance at Besiktas's Vodafone Arena.
Midfielder Ozan Tufan conjured the crucial goal after being introduced as a second-half substitute.
Lucas Digne played the final 10 minutes of France's 4-1 win over Albania in Paris.
Everton left-back Digne replaced Lucas Hernandez with Didier Deschamps's side already three goals to the good thanks to first-half strikes from Kingsley Coman and Olivier Giroud and Coman's second of the game on 68 minutes.
Jonathan Ikone came on for Bayern Munich star Coman and hit France's fourth with five minutes remaining. Sokol Cikalleshi picked himself up after being fouled by goalkeeper Hugo Llloris to convert from the spot and provide Albania with a consolation strike.
France, Turkey and Iceland are locked on 12 points at the top of Group H, which is shaping up as one of the more intriguing qualification pools. Each side has five games left to play.
Sigurdsson's Iceland travel to Albania on Tuesday, while France host Andorra and Turkey are in Moldova, as the three countries vie for two spots in the 2020 competition.