When Joe Hart returned to Manchester City for the start of the 2010/11 season after his successful loan spell at Birmingham, many were sceptical whether he could displace Shay Given, a goalkeeper long considered one of the best around. Given had garnered a reputation as a fine shot-stopper, with great experience having been a regular in the Premier League over a 13-year period.
But Hart had impressed on loan at St Andrews. A string of fine performances saw him win Birmingham’s Player of the Season, named in the Premier League Team of the Year and nominated for Young Player of the Year. It was one of the most successful loan spells of recent times.
After much deliberation, Roberto Mancini put him straight in the side for the trip to Tottenham on the opening day. City drew 0-0 and Hart was Man of the Match, producing a series of fine saves that earned City a point that had seemed unlikely. Mancini’s decision, which had raised a few eyebrows, had been vindicated.
For two seasons, Joe Hart was outstanding, helping City to an FA Cup success in 2011 and a league title in 2012. His confidence was sky high and his unblemished career showed little sign of deteriorating. He was firmly established as the City and England No. 1, and his form was consistently brilliant. His reflexes made him the best shot-stopper in the league, and his influence on his City team was growing all the time.
However, Hart’s performance levels have plummeted over the last 12 months. What at first looked like a minor blip—a reminder that he isn’t perfect and that he could still make improvements to his game—is now an all out implosion. His form is woeful; his confidence on the floor.
Hart’s distribution has never been the best, but there was an expectation it would improve over time. It hasn’t. It’s as bad today, if not worse, than when he returned from Birmingham. He consistently puts his own players in difficult situations by playing them into trouble with poor kicking, and if the ball is played back to him under pressure he looks decidedly uncomfortable.
He’s also failing to command his area with any authority. When corners and crosses are sent into the City box, there’s a general panic and uneasiness because he rarely takes control. He’ll punch when he could catch, and very often he doesn’t get there at all, flapping at thin air instead of dealing with the problem.
And then there’s the glaring mistakes—the gaffes that are becoming commonplace in his game. Clangers against Southampton, West Ham and Sunderland are the most memorable, but there have been plenty of others. The first and third goals against Bayern Munich in the 3-1 Champions League defeat are the latest in a long line of errors. Beaten at his near post twice, he was left looking completely forlorn and in desperate need of a rest.
But, of course, it’s difficult to take him out of the side.
The lack of competition Hart faces for both club and country means he’s an automatic starter. At City, Costel Pantilimon is Hart’s closest challenger, but he is inexperienced in the Premier League having only appeared for City in cup competitions, and hasn’t always looked comfortable in his rare appearances for the club. The idea that he could replace Hart in the long-term seems fanciful at best.
The latest England squad sees Fraser Forster and John Ruddy named as England’s second and third choice goalkeepers. Hart has 35 caps—Ruddy and Forster just one between them. Again, the thought of Hart not playing for England seems odd despite his terrible form. Indeed, as reported by BBC, Roy Hodgson today reaffirmed his belief in Hart, saying: “as far as I'm concerned, Joe Hart is my number one. He has never let me down."
What City needed to do was sign an experienced goalkeeper to put pressure on Hart. Someone like Mark Schwarzer, who joined Chelsea on a free transfer from Fulham this summer, would have been ideal. A ‘keeper with both the experience and ability to step in at any time. Competition for places is vital, and at the moment, Hart faces very little.
City fans have been extra patient with Joe Hart, primarily because of the brilliance he showed when he first broke into the first-team at the Etihad. Memories of his heroics still pervade but are fading with every mistake. His confidence seems so low right now it almost seems unfair to play him, but without a suitable replacement there’s little choice. Don’t be surprised to see a goalkeeper join the Blues in the January transfer window.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.