Manchester City's Season Could Rest on What Manuel Pellegrini Does with Joe Hart
A first defeat in English football—in just his second competitive game—may just be the least of Manuel Pellegrini’s immediate concerns after a chastening afternoon in Cardiff on Sunday.
The 3-2 defeat itself is unlikely to cost Manchester City the Premier League title; after all, there are 36 games still to be played and two games against all their likely rivals in which to make up ground. But one of the root causes of Sunday's loss could prove to be a recurrent issue, and could end up as a fatal shortcoming.
Joe Hart’s continuing poor form may be the biggest barrier to City’s title aspirations.
In a generally underwhelming performance in Wales, Hart was at fault in perhaps the game’s crucial moment—whiffing with a critical punch as Fraizer Campbell stole in behind him and put the hosts 2-1 ahead with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Campbell, now inspired, would score again from another corner less than 10 minutes later, and suddenly City were condemned to a defeat few, if anyone, predicted.
Afterwards, according to The Guardian, Pellegrini refused to blame Hart directly for the two set-piece goals that cost his side so dearly:
Defending set pieces is a duty for the whole team, not just the goalkeeper or the defenders.
It doesn't matter who is guilty. In the second half we improved but after we scored they scored from two corners and that decided the game.
Nevertheless, Pellegrini now has an important 10 days to consider his options. Does he stick with Hart and hope he finds his way out of this current slump? Or does he ditch England’s de-facto No. 1, and sign a goalkeeper he has more confidence in?
According to David Platt, Roberto Mancini’s former assistant at the Etihad Stadium, the Italian had already decided to dispense with Hart had he been allowed to continue as City manager beyond the end of last season.
According to widespread reports, Platt claimed to Al Jazeera that the club had identified Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic as their preferred replacement.
Begovic is widely accepted as one of the most reliable, and most technically proficient, No. 1's in English football.
David Platt on Al Jazeera: "If Mancini and I were still at City, Hart wouldn't be there. We decided to sign Begovic."— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) August 25, 2013
While Platt’s words should be taken with a pinch of salt—he needs to prove his "value," so to speak, to continue getting such profitable television appearances, so such soundbites serve a certain purpose for him—it was no secret that Hart was one of the more prominent players Mancini had fallen out with towards the end of City reign.
In the end, however, it was Mancini who left—the club decided the somewhat fractious former Inter Milan manager had lost the dressing room (Hart presumably prominent among that), and that they needed what they would later term a more "holistic" approach to management.
While it wasn't a "him or me" scenario, Mancini was the one who went, not Hart. And so Pellegrini arrived.
Barely two games into his succession, Pellegrini finds himself already considering the same concerns Mancini long harboured. Almost every Premier League title winner in the competition's history was able to call upon a consistent, reliable goalkeeper—in the key moments, you need a No. 1 who will produce a decisive save.
On Sunday, Hart failed in his moment—missing his punch as Campbell landed his blow. Too many more of those and City will be haemorraghing far too many points to recover; and Hart has not been playing well enough for an alarming period of time now.
He was at fault for Scotland’s first goal in England’s most recent international friendly at Wembley, coming on the heels of a series of similar high-profile errors last season against the likes of Sunderland and Poland.
Pellegrini’s decision is complicated by the potential availability of a genuinely world-class goalkeeper in the market. Iker Casillas is yet to return to his former standing as the undisputed No. 1 at Real Madrid, with new head coach Carlo Ancelotti (so far) preferring Diego Lopez in his team selections.
Casillas has been linked with Arsenal (and even Barcelona) in the last few weeks, but City would appear a far more viable fit for the World Cup winner.
Like Hart, Casillas will be determined to play regularly this season to preserve his international status. If the Spaniard did arrive, then Hart would almost certainly want to leave, even if only on a temporary basis, and that would be two complicated deals to do in the comparatively short time remaining before the transfer window closes on September 2.
A more likely alternative, then, is that Pellegrini reminds Hart in no uncertain terms that his place is no longer guaranteed. Complacency can become a problem for long-established goalkeepers, and this perhaps is the root cause of Hart’s recent slump.
That appears to be the route England head coach Roy Hodgson is taking, and Pellegrini could follow suit.
“Joe's place is as much open to competition as anyone else’s,” Hodgson warned after that Scotland mistake, per Henry Winter of The Telegraph. “I can’t give guarantees.
"I hope I am not going to be the type of guy who chops and changes at every mistake but I will be watching him closely in the coming games.
"Hopefully he will produce a few wonder games for City.”
Inserting Costel Pantilimon—a more competent goalkeeper than his resolutely reserve status under Mancini (who played the Romanian for the entirety of City's FA Cup run last season, then restored Hart for a final the club would lose) perhaps warranted—for a run of games might just remind Hart of the need to keep on top of his game, or even result in the discovery that the 6'8" Pantilimon can be the man City really needs in goal.
But even if Pantilimon is not the man for the long term, a temporary demotion may spur Hart into reviewing his methods more precisely. Getting to the level he has been in the game requires a great mental fortitude, exactly the sort of toughness that should make it eminently possible for the 26-year-old to emerge from this difficult spell in his career.
There were other issues at play in City’s defeat on Sunday, of course. Javi Garcia certainly did not enjoy his impromptu appearance at centre-back, while the side showed a real lack of width going forward that restricted their creativity.
Pellegrini must look inwards as well as outwards too, and perhaps reflect on his tactics and whether or not he took a newly promoted side lightly. But that possible arrogance, those tactical imperfections and his defensive issues can all be resolved over the next few weeks.
Defeat will realign Pellegrini’s mindset and force him to review his strategies, while Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic are due to return to full fitness soon.
But an unreliable goalkeeper is an ailment that can derail a season. How to deal with Joe Hart—whether to drop him, replace him or persevere with him—could define Manuel Pellegrini’s first season in the Premier League.
And he has less than 10 days to make his decision.
What is the duplicate article?
Why is this article offensive?
Where is this article plagiarized from?
Why is this article poorly edited?