Written by Andy Wood
Perhaps the major talking point at the beginning of this season has been the role of Joe Hart at Manchester City. Hart has been more or less a regular since 2007 and undisputedly so since 2010, yet this season he finds himself frantically searching for a new club before the transfer window deadline. New City manager Pep Guardiola supposedly wants a goalkeeper more suited to a ‘sweeper keeper’ role where the goalkeeper is capable of building attacks from the back, much like the traditional centre back sweepers of old. Despite this, it’s hard to ignore an underlying suggestion that Guardiola simply doesn’t see Hart as being good enough to retain a Number 1 spot at an elite club. Here I’m going to dissect a few possible reasons behind Guardiola’s train of thought and consider what Hart’s level really is.
credit Anas Alsaidy
Birth of the Sweeper-Keeper
The primary reason that Pep Guardiola has given for not making Joe Hart his Number 1 goalkeeper this season is that he doesn’t possess the distribution skills necessary to build play from the back, in the style of a sweeper. This is a fairly new concept in football tactics, and one that has been popularised considerably by Guardiola himself. It’s no secret that he favours an ultra possession-heavy style which he developed at Barcelona, in the style of the ‘Total Football’ perfected by Barca legend Johan Cruyff. The key feature of total football was always that every player on the pitch would be comfortable when in possession of the ball, at the time to revolutionise the way defenders played the game. In a modern era where many teams mould their styles on pressing very high up the pitch, it’s also now important for the goalkeeper to have the technique and composure to monopolise possession as well as his outfield teammates. In transitional play, where his own team is attacking high, this involves the goalkeeper roaming well outside his penalty area to offer an option to his defence when creating attacks from the back as well as defending loose clearances.
This is where the term ‘sweeper-keeper’ comes from. Although not seen anymore, in past decades the ‘sweeper’ was a central defensive player who would sit behind the traditional backline to ‘sweep up’ passes in behind, requiring terrific positional discipline, awareness and physicality. In a more modern, aggressive tactic, the goalkeeper rather than the centre back will take up this position on the pitch and perform the same duties. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola was lucky enough to work with Manuel Neuer who performed such a role exceedingly well. The German goalkeeper has a speed of thought and physical prowess arguably unique amongst goalkeepers. Whereas the role comes naturally to him, there is genuine reason for concern for Hart’s suitability for it. There has been more than one occasion during his career where Hart has cost Manchester City and England goals with his poor timing and decision making whilst sweeping up play behind the defence. Famously, he opted to head clear a long ball over the top during a friendly match between England and Sweden, which was followed by an extraordinary volleyed goal by Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, benefiting from Hart being stranded way off of his goal line. Likewise, a rash charge out saw Hart completely out of sync with defender Matija Nastasic during a league match between Manchester City and Chelsea, gifting Fernando Torres a match winning goal and ultimately costing Hart his place in the team for several weeks. It’s a major task to get a player ready for a system he has seemed completely out of depth at in the past and by the sounds of things, one that Guardiola is not willing to take on.
Too many mistakes
As mentioned above, Hart was dropped for a spell by previous City manager Manuel Pellegrini during the 2013-14 season following the incident that led to Torres’ last minute winner. This came on the back of a number of high profile errors early in that season that led to questions being asked of Hart’s consistency and possible complacency, having not missed a single Premier League match during any of the previous 3 seasons. He had also come under fire for poorly dealing with a corner kick that allowed Frazier Campbell to earn Cardiff City a shock 1-0 win as well as putting in a torrid display in a Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich, then managed by Guardiola. He has also come under fire at international level, most recently during Euro 2016 where he allowed efforts from Wales’ Gareth Bale and Iceland’s Kolbeinn Sigthorsson to go in despite being able to make contact with the ball.
Hart’s catalogue of previous errors will not go down well with Guardiola, a manager infamous for his perfectionism. As a manager on the touchline, the Spaniard is synonymous with outbursts of anger at the sight of his team merely losing possession. He strives for every slight detail working in favour of his team and having a player with a previous record of costly errors in the squad would not have gone down well upon his arrival at Manchester. That being said, another defining feature of Pep’s management style is his passionate man management. He wants every player to feel important and loved during their time at a club. Raheem Sterling came in for criticism at an even greater level than Hart last season and during the Euros, yet Pep has encouraged strong form out of the forward at the beginning of this season, to the point where Sterling looks a completely different player. It’s not in Guardiola’s nature to throw players to the sharks so, although Hart’s inconsistency may play a part in his demotion, it cannot be seen as the complete reasoning.
Better options out there
Ultimately, Guardiola has taken charge of one of the richest clubs in world football, playing in a fantastic stadium and able to offer players the prospect of major trophies and Champion’s League football. Because of this, there is a huge catalogue of goalkeepers across the world who could be attracted by a move to Manchester City. If the new manager were to decide that a better option was out there, there’s little a current player could do about it. Ultimately, Guardiola has opted to bring in Claudio Bravo, an experienced goalkeeper with a slew of club and international honours to his name. He’s a sharp shot-stopper but crucially he also has the distribution skills that Joe Hart doesn’t. Bravo is undoubtedly a fine goalkeeper, but is he really an improvement on Joe Hart?
The case for Joe Hart
There may have been a shift in the types of roles that goalkeepers are expected to fulfil in the modern game, but the primary duty of a goalkeeper hasn’t changed. First and foremost, they have to keep the ball out of the net. And Joe Hart remains an exceptional player for doing this. In one on one situations Hart makes excellent use of his large physical presence and committed mentality to make himself a daunting presence for incoming attackers to beat. At the same time he has incredible athleticism and concentration to allow him to make some remarkable close range reflex saves. His ability to keep goals out have led to him securing the Premier League Golden Glove award- given to the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets over a Premier League season- on a hugely impressive 4 different occasions. He’s also been named in the official Premier League Team of The Season on two separate occasions.
It’s also notable what an influence Hart can be in the dressing room. On his most recent (possibly final) Man City appearance he was given the captain’s armband and he has been touted as a possible captain of the England national team for many years. He is hugely popular figure who leads by example on the pitch, notably vocal in his communications towards teammates and also extremely likeable. He has a real passion that can be seen in his on pitch reactions and post match interviews and this can only be of benefit to have around the club, not least for the connection it provides with the fanbase- in Hart’s case this was demonstrated by the rapturous ovation he was given during his only appearance of the season.
Last but not least, he’s something of a legend at Manchester City. He’s been a crucial part of their most successful era in history, helping to 5 major trophies including two Premier League titles. He has over 250 league appearances and over 100 clean sheets to his name, but most importantly the fans love him, and that certainly has to count for something.
Has Guardiola made a mistake not giving Hart a chance? Where would be a good move for the England Goalkeeper? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by Corey-Adam Crowley