I should make one thing clear at the start of this piece, that I hold Joe Hart fully culpable for Torres’ sickeningly late winner on Sunday. It’s on that basis that I and many others have declared Hart’s form to be a serious problem, one that can no longer be ignored. So what’s the solution?
In the short term, I believe dropping Hart is a no-brainer, if only for two or three games. Costel Pantilimon would almost certainly have started our upcoming League Cup fixture anyway, but it now looks likely that he’ll also be in goal against Norwich on Saturday. Personally, I would have no qualms with that. Pantilimon is not as talented or ‘complete’ a goalkeeper as Hart, but when trusted with the gloves he can surprise us all, as evidenced by his star turn in last season’s FA Cup semi-final. More pertinently though, I can’t see him making any mistakes that Hart, in his current form, wouldn’t also make.
I’m no psychologist, but I’d like to go along with the belief that Hart losing his place could give him a necessary kick up the arse, which in turn would lead to him regaining form. Sadly, I’m not sure it’s that simple. As noted by James Ducker in The Times, Hart has also had to contend with a rotating cast ahead of him at CB due to Vincent Kompany’s various absences. When Kompany is injured (which is quite often, worryingly), the options at right CB are simply not convincing. Oh, for a combative, experienced Portuguese to step into the breach…
But I digress. Let’s say Hart sits out a few games, then comes back into the side, showing no signs of improvement (pessimistic, perhaps, but entirely possible). What then? We would simply have to consider signing a new keeper, unless of course Pantilimon shows unbelievable form and keeps his place for the foreseeable future, but I’d say this is unlikely.
(It’s also possible that Hart will push for the club to sign a new goalkeeping coach, with his preferred choice believed to be Dave Watson, currently at Norwich City. While this could well benefit Hart, without detailed knowledge of City’s training sessions it’s simply impossible to accurately gauge how much of an effect this would have. Also, very few managers will replace one of their coaches on the advice of a player, and I doubt Pellegrini is any different in that respect.)
Depending on how our league and European campaigns are going, the club could dip into the market in January. At this point, replacing Hart would be premature, so any signing would likely be made with the intention of providing stiffer competition for Hart, rather than ousting him outright. Málaga keeper Willy Caballero has been linked on numerous occasions and would fit the bill, while Stoke City’s Asmir Begović is another possible signing. In that scenario, Pellegrini could well rotate the keeper position, which could prove an interesting experiment. Even if Hart never retains his best form, having two strong (if not top class) goalkeepers on the books could serve us well, and would be a decent alternative to having our own Neuer/Buffon equivalent. Hopefully, the added competition would drive both players to the top of their game. Lots of ‘ifs’ in that scenario of course, but it could well provide an adequate solution to the Hart problem.
The worse-case scenario is that come May, Hart has deteriorated to the point where he is simply not good enough for City. This would be thoroughly depressing, given how utterly fantastic he was in the 2010-12 period (and in flashes since then). Back then, most blues were convinced we had a true great on our hands, a future City legend, and a mainstay of the side for the next ten years at least. It seems ridiculous now, but back then, his only serious faults were distribution and an occasional tendency to parry shots back into the penalty box. If City were to cut him loose at the end of the season, chances are he’d join the long list of merely decent English goalkeepers (and you have to think City wouldn’t sell if there was any chance it could bite them on the arse).
So, the fourth solution, if it comes to it: Replace Joe Hart. There could well be an uncommonly high number of excellent goalkeepers on the market next summer. If Iker Casillas is still on the Bernabéu bench he will surely be available, albeit for a high price. Victor Valdés is set to leave Barcelona on a free, though you have to think his future will be tied up well before July. Chelsea will be forced to make a decision on whether to make Petr Čech or Thibaut Courtois their permanent No1, meaning one of those two could be up for grabs. Borussia Mönchengladbach’s hugely promising young keeper Marc-André ter Stegen will surely be on the move (but probably to Barcelona). David De Gea could look to leave Manchester United, in the event that they finish outside the top four, but of course the chances of him coming here are slim to nil, especially if Real Madrid and/or Barcelona need a goalkeeper. If we were to sell Hart this summer it would be crushing, but it’s unlikely that we’d have to settle for a lesser keeper.
It’s possible that I’ll look back at this piece in a few months and laugh. Indeed, I hope I do. But the fact is there is no quick and easy solution to the Hart problem. What he is suffering is beyond a blip, beyond even a sustained slump. This is over a year of costly errors (15 in total according to Daniel Taylor’s excellent piece in The Guardian) and uncertainty. It is threatening to become a rut, one from which he may never recover. If that happens, expect the club to be ruthless.