“Willy [Caballero] made a really good preseason,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola told the waiting media at his post-match press conference following his side’s 2-1 home win over Sunderland on Saturday evening. “He gave me for today a lot of confidence for his build-up play, for his personality, and that is why I choose for him.”
It was a very carefully constructed answer to the question and it focused on the positive aspect of the story. The question had nothing to do with Caballero – what The Independent’s Sam Wallace had actually asked the new manager was why he’d left Joe Hart out of City’s starting line-up.
Perhaps the answer actually said more than many may have realised, as Hart’s attitude was called into question – rumours in pre-season spread that the goalkeeper defied Guardiola’s instructions to play the ball short and continued to clear it long during the friendly with Arsenal. Further rumours spread that he took the news very badly when he was told on Friday he was dropped for the match with Sunderland.
“Today I [I made this decision] because Sunderland play high-pressing and Willy had more training sessions than Joe about our build-up,” Guardiola continued later on. “We spend a lot of time working about two against one, three against two, four against three, using the goalkeeper – that doesn’t mean that Joe cannot do that.
“I have a lot of respect for Joe, a lot of respect for his career, I know how good a goalkeeper he is, but today I decide for Willy.”
On Sunday evening, it was reported that City had agreed personal terms with Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo ahead of a potential £18m move. It would seem to undermine the idea that Hart could be taught how Guardiola wants his number one to play if the deal were to go through.
City aren’t likely to be splashing that sort of money on a second-choice goalkeeper. It would seem to indicate that 2016-17 is the beginning of the end for Hart at City. He won’t want to be second-choice either, as it will seriously harm his chances of retaining the position for his country.
Opposition fans have always underrated the England international. His good points are frequently glossed over. He’s possibly the best goalkeeper in the Premier League when it comes to stopping one-on-ones, his ability to pull out insanely good saves is on a par with the world’s best, and his command of his area is excellent – even if supporters get annoyed that he likes to punch rather than catch high balls.
His deficiencies are there for all to see, too. He had a terrible Euro 2016 campaign and was at fault for two of the four efforts that beat him in the tournament. Both Wales’s Gareth Bale and Iceland’s Kolbeinn Sigthorsson shot to the goalkeeper’s left, and both were met with a hand that wasn’t strong enough to keep them out.
On top of that, perhaps most concerning for Guardiola, is that Hart has a knack of finding touch when playing the ball long with his feet. While that doesn’t necessarily reflect on his ability at playing short – he’s never really been in the position to play out short from the back – it won’t fill the new boss with confidence.
Guardiola has been given carte blanche to do what he likes to improve City and so if the manager is set on changing the goalkeeper then there is nothing that will get in his way. Fans will be nervous after having Hart as a constant for six years, but the old principle that sentiment has no place in football should a team want to improve comes into play – Guardiola doesn’t see any of the connection to the club and supporters that Hart has, only his qualities as a goalkeeper.
Supporters see a man who was bought as a kid in 2006 for a paltry sum of money and developed into a world-class goalkeeper that won an FA Cup and two Premier League titles. The second-choice behind him played in both of the club’s League Cup winning campaigns.
And the fact of the matter is, while Hart might be the better all-round than Caballero, he very rarely plays high up the pitch to sweep up behind his defence. The man who spent two years as his back-up is more equipped to do it, though many would question whether he’s up to the task given some of his suicidal passing play during pre-season and in the early minutes against Sunderland. Perhaps neither Hart nor Caballero truly fit the bill.
Many would suggest that if Guardiola is to sign a new goalkeeper he should play his strongest until the transfer is done. However, if his new style of play depends so much on a goalkeeper’s positioning and passing rather than his shot-stopping and aerial ability, then it’s an all or nothing thing and he has to play the best fit. It would appear, in his eyes, this isn’t Hart.
Guardiola’s City are planning to dominate the ball, so they need a goalkeeper that can defend on the front foot.
When the England international has been facing troubles at City in the past, it’s always felt like he’s had a way back. He was replaced by Mark Hughes in 2009, as the Welshman signed Shay Given from Newcastle and dropped Hart to the bench. He spent the next season on a year-long loan at Birmingham and when he arrived back, Roberto Mancini had taken the reigns.
For the 0-0 draw at Tottenham in the opening game of 2010-11 – Hart’s first campaign back after his 12 months with Birmingham – two things went in his favour. The first was that Mancini opted for youth over experience, the future over safety, and named him ahead of Given. The second was that Spurs dominated from first whistle to last – meaning he was able to show off the good form he was in, producing three particularly fine saves.
Hart went from strength to strength and held the shirt for some time, rising to perhaps the best period in his career in 2011-12. His performances were a big part in City securing their first Premier League title.
It all came crashing down during Mancini’s final season, as mistake after mistake crept into his game – the most striking examples coming in a 3-1 loss at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium in 2013. That continued through the Italian manager’s final days into Pellegrini’s new era, until he was dropped after a calamitous error at Chelsea.
He gifted Fernando Torres a winner by speeding off his line when he could have stayed put and allowed Matija Nastasic to nod back to him. It echoed a problem that he’d had in the past; his judgement in leaving his area has never been great – he gave away goals in a 1-1 draw with Blackburn in 2010 and a 3-2 win over Tottenham in 2012 by erroneously exiting his area.
Of course, the errors are more memorable than the times he’s raced out and cleared the danger, but it certainly seemed like he’d made a conscious decision not to leave his box unless absolutely necessary – and his starting position was always slightly further back than perhaps it needed to be.
When Pellegrini dropped the England goalkeeper in 2013, there was always a way back. Costel Pantilimon needed to come in to take Hart out of the limelight and allow him to regain his compose, but the Romanian was never a long-term option and didn’t fill the defence with confidence. The kick up the backside spurred Hart on to better performances, with him back to his best by 2014 and City’s second title win.
Guardiola’s words about teaching Hart what the he wants of him seem more like a diplomatic way of telling the press that the goalkeeper will be on the bench for some time. Starting with Caballero and making a move for a new goalkeeper – which had looked like it would be Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but now appears to be his teammate Bravo – would suggest that what the City boss says just isn’t true and that it’s more likely Hart will be gone by the end of August.
Of course, it’s sad to see the longest-serving player leave – especially since he’s the only one who can remember the dark pre-Sheikh Mansour days of 10 home league goals a season, 8-1 defeats at Middlesbrough and player fire-sales to balance the books with any degree of familiarity. Sure, the likes of Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta arrived before the money – but they never lived through the desperation like Hart did.
Selling the goalkeeper won’t be a popular decision, but Guardiola isn’t interested in what will make him friends right now – but what will be correct for his team to win everything that they can do. The club wanted the best manager in the world to make the choices that will make them the best football team in the country.
They and the fans now have to trust in his judgement, even if it goes against what the vast majority of them want.
Written by David Mooney
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