Joe Hart’s position as first choice goalkeeper of Manchester City was already under question before Euro 2016. Despite some stellar performances under Manuel Pellegrini, new boss, Pep Guardiola traditionally likes his goalkeepers to be accomplished passers of the ball, leading to uncertainty regarding Hart’s future at the club. With the pressure on, Hart had what can only be described as a disastrous tournament in France, clearly at fault for Gareth Bale’s long range free kick, and then the goal which eventually sent England home. Whilst Hart does have his flaws, he has saved his club vital points on a number of occasions, with big performances against Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Champions League becoming something of a regularity. This article is not questioning whether he is a good goalkeeper, the answer to that question is simple – yes, he is a very good goalkeeper. It is asking the question as to whether Hart should continue to be City’s ‘number one’ and whether we, as fans, should be concerned about his evident points of weakness.
Hart is as close as City have come to having an academy player become a first team regular, as he joined the club at the young age of 19. This has led to City fans becoming protective over him and it has become taboo to criticise him. Therefore, before I begin to scrutinize Hart’s position at the club, it is worth making my feelings towards him clear. Whilst not being his biggest fan on the pitch, I think that Hart is an absolutely fantastic ambassador for Manchester City off the pitch. Ian Herbert recently wrote a piece which berated Hart’s attitude off the back of England’s disappointing exit from Euro 2016, an article which I wholeheartedly disagreed with.
Herbert came to the conclusion that Hart had ‘forgotten’ his ‘professional role’ as a result of his behaviour before and after matches. This behaviour which he talks about is the same behaviour which has endeared him to many fans and has given him something of a cult-hero status at Manchester City. Before the game, Hart can always be seen doing his best to get his team-mates pumped up, and after the game he is not one to shy away from responsibility, as seen by his comments after the Wales game. “Why do you want to talk to me?” Hart said when questioned by the press, “I’m the villain. Talk to the heroes,” of course referring to his part in Wales’ opening goal. It was the sort of thing which we have come to expect from Hart in interviews, he isn’t one of those players who just regurgitates hours of media training, he tells it how it is, no matter how hard-hitting it may be. A patron of the club’s ‘City in the City’ scheme, it is certainly not Hart’s off the field etiquette which gives Manchester City a cause for concern.
Arguably Hart’s most glaring flaw is his weakness when it comes to saving shots on his left-hand side. Many will suggest that I have come to this conclusion based off the fact that his two most recent errors, against Iceland and Wales, can be attributed to this weakness. Unfortunately, Hart’s problems on his left are long-standing, having been beaten by Adam Lallana, Stephane Sessegnon and Victor Moses last season when he ought to have done much better. Going further back, an Adam Johnson goal at the Stadium of Light sticks out in the memory as a poor piece of goalkeeping which led to a 1-0 loss. When people talk to me about Hart, I always tell them that I am far more confident that he will save a shot from point-blank range than a shot on his left from outside the area – perhaps a slight exaggeration, but the point remains. This will certainly be a worry for Pep and his goalkeeping coach, Xabier Mancisidor.
The biggest concern for Pep however, is Hart’s relatively poor distribution compared to goalkeepers that he has worked with in the past. A significant aspect of Pep’s tactics involves playing out from the back, something which requires the ‘keeper to do plenty of work with his feet. Having coached Bayern Munich for the past three years, Pep has had the luxury of having Manuel Neuer playing for him, undoubtedly the most able goalkeeper in the world with the ball at his feet. Whilst Hart isn’t too far behind Neuer in terms of shot-stopping, he is light years behind the German when it comes to distribution. Often it is said that Neuer could play as an outfielder in the Bundesliga if he wanted to. Hart however, would be more at home playing ‘Sunday League’ football if he was required to play in a different position. These points are endorsed by the fact that Hart is ranked as the 59th best goalkeeper (in possession of the ball) in Europe’s top five leagues, comfortably behind goalkeepers such as Tim Howard, Lukas Fabianski and Simon Mignolet. Add this to Manchester City being one of the top 15 teams in Europe when it comes to keeping the ball and Hart’s deficiencies in possession become more and more apparent. Whether Pep will be able to successfully coach Hart into playing his style of football remains to be seen, and will be a crucial factor in whether Hart has a long-term future at Manchester City.
So it is clear that Hart is not the perfect goalkeeper for Guardiola’s system, but are there any better options out there? The first name on the list would probably be Marc-André ter Stegen, who City have been linked with frequently in recent months. Despite showing a lot of potential, Ter Stegen is still very young and it would be a risk for City to replace Hart with him. In addition, it would take quite a large fee to tempt Barcelona into parting with the young German. A more affordable option would be the current Real Sociedad ‘keeper, Gerónimo Rulli. Rulli’s possession stats, however, are not that much better than Hart’s and should not be seen as an upgrade, despite potential improvement in the future. In my opinion, the best realistic option available would be Yann Sommer. Sommer, of Borussia Monchengladbach, is ranked 9th in Europe’s top five leagues when in possession of the ball and is a very well-rounded goalkeeper. Despite being linked with City just over a month ago, the rumours have died down, indicating a lack of interest in the Swiss stopper. Furthermore, Hart has one crucial attribute which none of the others have – ‘homegrown’ status. At a time when City are desperate for English players to come through, the club can’t really afford to get rid of the most accomplished homegrown player in the squad.
On reflection, Hart should undoubtedly be given a year to prove himself under Pep. As well as the fact that there aren’t many better goalkeepers available, Hart has shown that he is able to overcome flaws in the past. Under Roberto Mancini, Hart’s concentration was a significant concern, but he worked hard to improve and that is exactly what Pep Guardiola will need him to do again. Guardiola is arguably the best manager in the world, and so should be able to help Hart improve his distribution and his weakness on his left-hand side. If he does indeed manage to do this, Hart will finally be able to live up to his status as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The next 12 months are crucial for Hart, because if Guardiola is unable to eradicate these alarming flaws, City will likely be in the market for a new goalkeeper, come next summer.