It’s not been the best 18 months or so for City’s number 1 goalkeeper, Joe Hart. To say that is probably unfair as he’s been better than some might say, but perhaps it is better to say it has been ‘mixed’. Coupled with the usual superb saves that we’ve come to expect from the Englishman over the last few years are a number of high-profile errors since the start of the 2013-14 season that have drawn criticism from several corners, including a relatively large portion of City fans. However, is all this criticism justified? Is he still good enough for City?
No-one can argue just how good Hart was before the summer of 2013. He managed to hold the title of “most clean sheets in a season” for three years running between 2010-11 and 2012-13, and on the whole looked very good. He impressed for City, which earned him a place in the squad over Shay Given, the man he replaced as first choice in goal. Whilst that was happening, he worked himself into the England squad as the number one keeper under both Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson, and has remained as the first choice ever since (although that might say as much about the quality of English goalkeepers as it does about Hart). With those two things in mind, how has it got to the situation where he’s now considered unreliable by some?
The majority of his errors started to come at the start of the 2013-14 season, the first season under Manuel Pellegrini. In the early part of that season he was playing behind quite a shaky City defence and that will have contributed to his mistakes, but some cannot be excused, such as the errors against Aston Villa and Chelsea, both of which ended up in the opposition scoring the winning goal.
Eventually, he was dropped for Costel Pantilimon, who spent about a month as the first-choice keeper, and although he didn’t look bad in any sense of the word, it was noticeable he wasn’t as good as Hart. Regardless, when Hart was eventually brought back in, a marked improvement could be seen in the performances of the keeper, and from that point (around November-December 2013) he looked – in my eyes, anyway – solid, and was a contributing factor in us winning the league. The amount of “errors leading to goals” dropped from that period onwards, to the point where the only errors that lead to opposition goals were in the first weeks of the season.
Given its success, Manuel Pellegrini may well be considering employing that tactic again, replacing Hart with Willy Caballero for a few games between the sticks. Willy has already been given a few chances to show what he’s got and hasn’t looked bad, and it has to be remembered he was brought in to give more competition to Hart than Pantilimon was able to. Being replaced by Caballero – even just for a few games – might just give Joe that kick up the arse he needs to pick up his form in the last four months of the season.
I defend Hart more than most, but there are definitely a couple of traits he needs to work on. First of all, his distribution is, and has been for quite a while, generally quite poor. He sometimes picks the wrong pass, or takes too long and it leads to the breakdown of some situations that could be beneficial or that could lead to a goal. Secondly, he needs to improve the way he deals with set pieces into the box. Often he goes at the ball with both hands, to try and punch it away from danger, even in situations where it would be safer just to catch it. A punch is a very difficult to get right and make it worthwhile, so Hart either needs to improve his punching, or change his strategy.
However, some traits like his shot-stopping show me that he’s more than good enough to still be here. He sometimes makes some absolutely brilliant stops, like his fingertip save from Romelu Lukaku in Saturday’s draw against Everton, and they’re stops that a lot of keepers struggle to pull off. To me, that shows he’s a good keeper, but he’s a keeper with flaws. There’s other keepers available to The Blues, like Petr Cech who appears to be on his way out of Chelsea, but I think the way City are sticking with Hart is admirable, and it shows that the club still hold confidence in the Englishman.