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Nick Pope: The Newcastle signing who is ‘as good a goalkeeper as there is’

“Sure, there are more fashionable goalkeepers than Nick Pope; those who are technically very good with their feet. But there aren’t any better pure goalkeepers in the Premier League.”

Nathan Jones, the Luton Town manager, worked closely with Newcastle United’s latest signing when he was a “rough diamond ready to be polished” in Charlton Athletic’s under-21 side. He believes Eddie Howe, his Newcastle counterpart, has completed one of the “most logical but astute” pieces of business any club will conduct this summer.

“He had all the attributes I want in a goalkeeper and now he consistently does everything that a goalkeeper should do well,” Jones says. “He catches it, he makes saves and defends his box in a way that few can. He might not ping it around like a midfielder, but he wins his team matches because, as an out-and-out goalkeeper, he’s as good as there is.”

High praise, indeed, particularly considering Pope arrives from a Burnley side freshly relegated to join Luton in the Championship.

Yet few who watched him regularly at Burnley would disagree with Jones’ assessment that Pope is an outstanding shot-stopper. Chris Wood, the Newcastle striker who played with Pope at Turf Moor for four seasons, described him last year as “one of the best keepers I’ve worked with. For shot-stopping, he’s number one”.

In 141 top-flight appearances, the 30-year-old has kept 46 clean sheets. He was voted Burnley’s player of the year twice in his six seasons there (and of which he missed almost completely through injury) — and, in 2019-20, Pope was named in the PFA Premier League team of the year after keeping 15 clean sheets in 38 games.

Admittedly, Pope was not necessarily the goalkeeper many expected Newcastle to move for. A ball-playing profile was considered, with enquiries made about Paris Saint-Germain’s often-loaned Alphonse Areola and Chelsea back-up Kepa Arrizabalaga.

In the end, though, Newcastle prioritised all-round play ahead of footballing skills.

After deciding against pursuing Manchester United’s reserve keeper Dean Henderson and following tentative queries about Porto’s Portugal international Diogo Costa, Pope became Howe’s clear first choice. Howe has long admired Pope and it is understood the head coach attempted to sign him for Bournemouth in 2019.

While Howe is keen to evolve Newcastle’s style of play in his first full season in charge, it will be a gradual process. The defensively disciplined, hard-working approach that transformed Newcastle’s fortunes in the second half of last season is set to continue and it is hoped Pope will only aid that.

The eight-cap England international is likely to be an exception this summer; Newcastle’s intended blueprint is to buy a younger profile of player from the European market. Pope, though, is almost an extension of their January policy: to bring in positive personalities with Premier League experience whose impact on the first team will be immediate.

During Howe’s extensive background checks on Pope, he received glowing references about his character, professionalism and desire to improve.

Pope has impressed when with the national team, particularly off the field, and has become the second active England international to join Newcastle inside six months after full-back Kieran Trippier — a significant departure from the Mike Ashley era.

“Nick has reached the top the hard way but he is an excellent goalkeeper and an even better person,” says Chris Powell, who took Pope to Charlton from non-league Bury Town, before coaching him within the national set-up and getting to present him with his first senior cap. “He has earned his place in the England squad and no keeper works harder to better themselves.”

This transfer has a degree of opportunism about it, with Newcastle pouncing following Burnley’s relegation, just as they were contemplating activating relegation-release clauses in the event of Leeds United going down, with that club’s Jack Harrison and Raphinha both admired at St James’ Park.

Despite the animosity following the activation of Wood’s £25 million release clause in January, Burnley’s financial position left them open to negotiating an exit for a player who is desperate to remain in the top flight ahead of a World Cup that is now only five months away.

His signing on a four-year deal is one people inside the club believe makes sense. A fee believed to be between £10 million and £12 million means Newcastle have used only a fraction of their summer budget while significantly strengthening their goalkeeper department, an area Howe felt required refreshing.

Freddie Woodman, who was entering the final year of his deal, has departed for Preston North End in a permanent move, while Karl Darlow is also being courted by Championship clubs, including Middlesbrough. Neither Darlow nor Woodman had seriously challenged Martin Dubravka as No 1 and Newcastle’s other senior reserve, 30-year-old Mark Gillespie, has yet to make a top-flight appearance for the club two years after joining from Motherwell of the Scottish Premiership.

Pope’s arrival, therefore, raises questions about the futures of the remaining goalkeepers, with at least one more of those named above likely to leave.

The message coming out of the club is that, with Dubravka missing 37 of the last 76 league matches due to serious foot injuries, Newcastle require an alternative of at least equivalent standing to the long-time Slovakia international, and the impression offered is that the pair will compete for the starting role under Howe.

Martin-Dubravka-Newcastle-United


Dubravka will now battle with Pope for the No 1 spot but may not be content with that (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Last year, Pope insisted he would only leave Burnley to be a No 1 elsewhere and, even if their relegation has changed his circumstances, he is believed to have received assurances that there is a genuine prospect of him playing regularly for Newcastle. Although Dubravka, 33, is expected to stay as things stand, should he end up being demoted to deputy now Howe has brought in a keeper of his own, he may yet consider his options.

Acquiring another goalkeeper was not the utmost priority and it has perhaps come earlier in the summer than Newcastle anticipated — a striker, a centre-back and a right-sided forward are keenly desired — but, when an opportunity to land a shot-stopper of Pope’s standing arrived, the club acted swiftly.


There is one aspect of Pope’s play that is continually highlighted, much to the “frustration” of Ben Roberts, the Brighton & Hove Albion goalkeeper coach who worked with the now 30-year-old in his Charlton days.

“I’ve been uncomfortable with people repeatedly mentioning his distribution ‘deficiencies’, as I don’t agree,” Roberts says. “He’s played in a particular way at Burnley and, whatever Newcastle ask him to do, he’ll be fine.”

Under Sean Dyche after his summer 2016 move to Turf Moor, Pope was part of a direct side. As the Burnley passing network — which displays who passes to whom and how often — for last season shows, the goalkeeper position is essentially an island, with Pope not expected to pass out to his centre-backs.

For comparison, Newcastle’s pass network displays Dubravka playing it to his defenders more frequently.

However, the lines between the goalkeeper and centre-halves are red, showing low possession value, as Howe has not attempted to rapidly alter Newcastle’s approach since replacing Steve Bruce in November.

According to Fbref.com, which uses data from StatsBomb, Pope’s average length of pass last season was 52.8 yards, second only to Everton’s Jordan Pickford among Premier League keepers.

The percentage of passes he “launched” — those that travelled more than 40 yards, not including goal kicks — was 73.4 per cent, the most in the division; 93 per cent of his goal kicks were also “launched”.

Of the 29.8 passes he attempted per 90 minutes, only 0.8 were “short” (between five and 15 yards), 3.3 were “medium” (15 to 30 yards), while 25.7, or 85.9 per cent, went “long” (more than 30 yards).

Pope’s passing map for April and May captures this. The yellow circles are where his passes were struck from, the black dots show where they went.

As shown in the below image, ironically taken during Newcastle’s 2-1 final-day victory over Burnley at Turf Moor that confirmed their relegation, despite having options left and right to pass to, Pope kicks long when pressured by Miguel Almiron.

Although Dyche was no longer manager, having been sacked in mid-April, caretaker boss Mike Jackson did not radically alter the team’s long-held approach, and the direct strategy continued.

This contrasted with Newcastle’s approach to build-up play.

Although Dubravka did still regularly go long, with 50 per cent of last season’s passes “launched”, he was also encouraged to feed defenders in space. Here is his pass map for April and May.

Below is another example from that same game with Burnley, showing Dubravka’s alternative distribution approach when closed down. He receives the ball from Dan Burn and spreads the play to right-back Trippier, before rapidly retreating from the edge of the penalty area to make himself available for any return pass.

“Nick will be fine with his feet,” says Andy Collett, the goalkeeper coach during Pope’s loan at York City, then of League Two, in 2014. “He was asked to play in a direct way at Burnley and he did that very well. At Newcastle, they won’t be quite as direct, but they aren’t suddenly going to become Barcelona.”

Collett insists that Pope “works tirelessly” on his distribution, while Roberts says the goalkeeper’s ability to pass with both feet, despite being naturally right-footed, is an underrated quality in his game.

Newcastle’s coaching staff are expected to work with Pope during pre-season, to introduce him to an alternative style, even if it will not require a libero approach overnight.

“Nick is eminently coachable and adaptable, and Eddie knows that,” Powell says. “His distribution is fine and he will be able to adapt to how Eddie wants to play. He is a top-class goalkeeper; everything else is just noise and doesn’t affect what he brings.”

And it is not as if Pope cannot play it short.

In an England shirt, as shown below while winning his eighth and most recent cap in a friendly against Ivory Coast in March, he is often encouraged to pass to his centre-backs when pressurised.

“He’s not as strong as some top keepers with his feet, that’s not a secret,” Luton manager Jones says. “That’s not to say he can’t play; what he needs to do, he does. Eddie develops players and, if anyone is going to work with him on it, he will.

“First and foremost, your goalkeeper is there to defend. Yes, he’s an extra body in build-up, but I’m a big believer in getting a keeper who can do the basics of goalkeeping first, then work with him on the other stuff. What you can’t do is get a technical player and then turn them into a goalkeeper — Nick will do exactly what Eddie needs him to.”

Pope’s distribution from his hands is a crucial strength, though.

Often for Burnley, rather than kick, he would begin attacks with accurate throws, particularly after collecting lofted balls, averaging 3.9 such attempts per 90 minutes.

In the image below from that same Newcastle match last month, Pope plucks a Bruno Guimaraes attempted lob out of the air, before immediately throwing out to Jack Cork.

Still, those within the game are bemused by the narrative surrounding his footballing skills —  as are Newcastle, who are convinced they have signed an exceptional goalkeeper.

A towering presence, Pope is officially listed as ‘only’ 6ft 3in tall on the Premier League’s website, but those who have played with or against him insist that his broad shoulders and positioning make him imposing. He uses that profile well, too, to command his area and boasts a showreel of spectacular saves.

Powell labels Pope as “probably the best collector of crosses I’ve ever seen. He’s just so dominant and that’s not just because of his height, his timing is also spot on 99 per cent of the time”.

The table below may have placed Pope as the ninth-best shot-stopper in the Premier League last season, with Dubravka up in third, but over the past four seasons, few goalkeepers have performed as consistently as Newcastle’s new signing, even if he does have a propensity for the odd mistake, with three errors leading to opposition goals since the start of the 2020-21 season.

Collett believes that Pope “excels in one-on-one situations, using his frame extremely well”, and he displayed that in what turned out to be his final Burnley appearance, standing tall and being patient before denying Allan Saint-Maximin.

Roberts says Pope “keeps his nerve and uses his quick reflexes, rather than guessing early”.

This was highlighted against Tottenham earlier last month.

Son Heung-min fires a shot from 10 yards but, rather than throw his whole body across, Pope merely sticks up an arm and, in unorthodox style, bats the fierce effort away.

“He makes saves other people might not be able to,” Roberts says. “He’s a big boy and stays very neutral, he’s not a gambler. He makes a lot of saves look easier than they are. He’s refined his technique so that it suits him and his physicality. He’s world-class at shot-stopping and defending from crosses.”

An underappreciated element of Pope’s play is his role as a sweeper-keeper.

Last season, he performed the joint-most defensive actions outside of his box — such as interceptions, tackles or blocks — of any top-flight goalkeeper (1.8 per 90) alongside Alisson of Liverpool, while Dubravka averaged just 0.4. Pope’s overall defensive actions also took place higher upfield (18.2 yards) than any other keeper, with Dubravka often contributing from a deeper position (12.7 yards).

According to Roberts, Pope “senses danger”, while Collett says he “knows where to be to thwart opposition attacks”. Pope is comfortable rushing out to use his feet or his head as a sweeper, with an example of the goalkeeper leaving his area and diving forward to nod the ball into touch to intercept against Watford in April below.

Powell believes Pope’s “fearlessness and willingness to put his body on the line” comes from being rejected by Ipswich Town as a teenager and then working his way up to the top through non-League and EFL.

“He’s very proactive in and around his box and just does the basics extremely well,” Jones says. “He’s not as fashionable as other goalkeepers but he’s better than them. He does the fundamentals brilliantly.

“I have no doubt he’ll become a real fan favourite at Newcastle — not because he’s going to be pinging it around, but because he’ll make game-changing saves. Saving-wise, there’s no one better.”

(Photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

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