An opinion piece questioning Joe Hart’s goalkeeping, just a day after England dropped points against its oldest enemy may attract accusations of being reactionary, if only that was the case.
The reality is that the last year and a bit has included one problem after another for the previously undisputed Manchester City and England number one.
Pep Guardiola being announced as the forthcoming City manager, on February 1, got the ball rolling, and the momentum has got faster as time has gone on, most recently culminating in the 30-year-old letting two really quite saveable free-kicks past him in as many minutes in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Scotland.
Euro 2016 was the first real on-pitch indication that the Hart was starting to break with England unceremoniously dumped out of the competition in France as early as the Round of 16 stage, against Iceland.
Not all the blame can be aimed at the goalkeeper, of course, but the Three Lions did concede four goals in their four matches against Russia, Wales, Slovakia and Iceland and a case could be made that Hart was at fault for all of them.
A looping header caught him off guard in the Russia draw, Gareth Bale’s free-kick from miles out squirmed under him and then a long throw-in that caught Hart out followed by another tame shot that seemed to go through him led to Iceland eliminating England.
Regardless of his Euro 2016 showing, Hart was probably departing City anyway, given Guardiola’s insistence on a ball-playing keeper, and Hart was duly loaned to Serie A outfit Torino. In his own words, to Soccer AM: “The management didn’t want me, so I had to go somewhere else.
“Obviously he (Guardiola) had different ideas. The manager who came in came in with a lot of experience, an awful lot of medals and I know the club worked really hard to have him in charge of the football club.
“Unfortunately, football is a game of opinions. His opinions weren’t too great on me, I kind of smelled that when I came in. That’s life, that’s football.”
Hart’s replacement at City, Claudio Bravo, had a disastrous campaign of his own but he was only ever a temporary option for Pep and his side, given that Barcelona’s other keeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, was the one he really wanted with Manuel Neuer, who he coached at Bayern Munich, never a realistic option.
Given Bravo’s below-par bedding in period, City fans and neutral pundits alike were calling for the return of the ousted Hart, but only by those that were not watching his performances in Turin.
Life in Italy was tough, and gaffe-ridden for Hart who dropped, in some cases literally, clangers against the likes of Inter Milan, Atalanta and Crotone.
Judging goalkeepers by statistic is difficult in the nicest terms, and downright inaccurate in the worst. Torino having the second-worst defence in the Italian top flight is not a direct correlation to Hart’s form, or lack thereof, and nor, really, is a poor shot-to-save ratio.
Hart’s inclusion in the Serie A ‘Flop of the Season’ XI is a damning indictment though and established Italian football writer James Horncastle quipping: “Torino couldn’t believe they had landed England’s number one. Over the course of the season, they realised why”, sums it up better than most.
Once done with England duty, Hart will return to Manchester, but if he even gets to the stage of taking his coat off and hanging it up on his dressing room peg, he can call that a victory as City’s £35 million signing of Benfica’s Ederson kicks him through the door that was already more than ajar.
While his time at his club comes to an end, Hart is also at risk of a bypass at international level. Jack Butland may have missed the majority of the 2016-17 season through injury but in his games since recovery he seems back on track while Jordan Pickford was widely considered to be the best goalkeeper in the country last season, despite Sunderland’s abject relegation campaign.
“We didn’t expect so many mistakes from an England international”, was the departing shot from Torino president Urbano Cairo but currently it looks increasingly more likely that a good moment for Hart would be more surprising.
We are barely at Christmas and the 2015-16 Premier League season has given us plenty of talking points already. From surprise table-toppers Leicester City to Chelsea – the holders who have fallen from grace – and, of course, a certain Jamie Vardy – but more on him later.
The winter festivities bring out many celebrations and, most enjoyably, an even more bumper football fixture list. It is also the time of the year we see people start to talk about the end-of-season awards – here is BenjaminWillsBlog’s pick of the top 11 men so far.
Goalkeeper: Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Even before this season Jack Butland was lauded as one for the future for the England team – his inclusion into the Euro 2012 squad at just 19 years of age proved that but recent performances could already have him pushing for a start at the next Euros.
Asmir Begovic’s switch to Chelsea in the summer paved the way for Butland to make the number one shirt at Stoke City his own and he has grabbed the opportunity, like most crosses he has faced, with both hands.
Butland has made 56 saves and kept seven clean sheets (second to Costel Pantilimon and Heurelho Gomes respectively), but he has an average save-per-game rating of 3.29 and a 98% success rate at claiming crosses.
Honourable Mentions: Heurelho Gomes (Watford) and Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Right-Back: Cedric Soares (Southampton)
Perhaps an early surprise name on the team sheet ahead of Hector Bellerin and Kyle Walker – mainly due to Southampton failing to build on their seventh placed spot from 2014-15, but Cedric Soares has filled the Nathaniel Clyne-shaped hole in the Saints’ defence seamlessly.
The Portuguese full-back has won 38 tackles – more than Arsenal’s Bellerin and Walker of Tottenham having played a game less than the former and two less than the latter and he has made nine blocks – six more than Walker and seven more than Bellerin. He also has just one fewer clearance than the pair.
Soares also plays a role in the opposing half superbly. He has created 18 chances and made 17 key passes, yes, you guessed it, six more than Walker and eight more than Bellerin.
Honourable Mentions: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal) and Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)
Centre Back: Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Even the most diehard Manchester United fan, in fact, especially the most diehard Manchester United fan, will tell you that the Red Devils have not been fun to watch this season – but Chris Smalling is one man who gives them reasons to be cheerful.
Louis van Gaal’s defensive tactics has stunted the normally attack-minded Manchester United in front of goal but on the flip side it makes them pretty sturdy at the back and Smalling is the finest example of that.
Smalling has had a hand in United having eight clean sheets from the 16 league matches where he has featured – the only one he missed was the humiliating 2-1 loss at AFC Bournemouth.
Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal for Manchester United
Centre Back: Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)
“Best defender in the Premier League” – those are the words of Rio Ferdinand and Thierry Henry, both esteemed pundits and football legends, high praise indeed – and Laurent Koscielny has justified it this season.
The mercurial Frenchman has been ‘le Roche’ at the back for the Gunners as they make their latest bid to win the title for the first time since the historic 2003-2004 “Invincibles” side.
Koscielny’s display in the recent 2-1 win over fellow title-chasers Manchester City was arguably his performance of the season with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and Wilfried Bony all failing to cause him much trouble – only a wonderful Yaya Toure goal prevented Arsenal from keeping their eighth clean sheet.
Under the Kos-h: Best defender in the league? Yes according to Ferdinand and Henry
Honourable Mentions: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Cook (AFC Bournemouth), and John Stones (Everton)
Left-Back: Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Patience is a virtue, as is hard work, Nacho Monreal has both in abundance. Just two years ago you were more likely to see Monreal on the Arsenal bench while Kieran Gibbs occupied the left-back role, now roles have reversed and Monreal has even became one of the league’s finest in the position.
He also finds himself overlooked in the Spain squad with Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta of Barcelona and Chelsea respectively preferred over him but if he carries on like this he may get his deserved chance.
Arsenal, as ever, are impressing with their flair game of pass-and-move, which Monreal does contribute to too, but it is his work rate first and foremost that has endeared him to his fans.
Quite a Dish: He had to wait, but Nacho is proving to be a great starter
Honourable Mentions: Nathan Ake (Watford) and Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)
Centre Midfielder: Ross Barkley (Everton)
What a yo-yo player Ross Barkley is proving to be – down, up, down, up…
Barkley properly burst onto the scene in 2013-14, three years after he broke his leg, and scored six goals in 34 games in his debut full season in the Premier League but last season he only scored two goals and registered two assists.
This campaign however he has truly blossomed, he already has six goals and six assists to his name, he has made 31 key passes and created 33 chances from the heart of the Everton midfield, pulling the strings like many expected of him at an even earlier age. France, here he comes.
Centre Midfielder: N’Golo Kante (Leicester City)
Every good side needs a midfield enforcer and league leaders Leicester City (yes, really), have one in N’Golo Kante.
The previously relative unknown Kante was snapped up in the summer from Ligue 1’s SC Caen for £5.6 million, just one year after playing in France’s second tier for the same club and, for the time being at least, he finds himself top of the Premier League table.
Practically everyone in Leicester’s path have been outfoxed from August to December and, if Claudio Ranieri’s men keep up the story of the season, Kante could be commanding a higher transfer fee in six months time.
Unpredicted star: N’Golo Kante believe how well he has done but Caen can
Honourable Mentions: Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) and Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace)
Right Midfielder: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
A Leicester player for Player of the Season? Only in 2015-16. Riyad Mahrez has been a star for the side many tipped for relegation before a ball was kicked.
Mahrez has been involved in 18 of Leicester’s 37 goals this season (11 goals, seven assists) which is more than any other player in the league.
He only scored three goals in the year Leicester got promoted to the Premier League from the Championship and netted a solitary one more last season. Keeping hold of the Algerian beyond January seems crucial if the Foxes want the fairytale to have a happy ever after.
Wing Wizard: Mahrez is Algeria’s most dangerous export since petroleum
Blink during an Arsenal match and you will probably miss an assist from Mesut Ozil. The 27-year-old German has set up 15 league goals already, as many as David Silva has in a single season and only five fewer than the Premier League record over an entire season held by Henry, also of Arsenal.
Ozil has found the back of the net of his own accord twice, made 52 key passes and created a whopping 67 chances for the rest of Arsene Wenger’s squad.
If the Gunners are going to win their first title in 12 years, the King of Assists is going to need to keep providing moments of magic as, at times, he completely runs the game almost single-handedly.
Honourable Mentions: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) and Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
Left Midfielder: Dmitri Payet (West Ham United)
West Ham United’s impending move to the Olympic Stadium is expected to attract some big names to east London, but that process began as early as this June when Dmitri Payet signed for the happy Hammers for around £12 million.
Payet recorded the fourth highest assist total in Europe last season for Marseille (17), only then Wolfsburg man de Bruyne (20), Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi (both 18) provided more.
He started in England how he finished in France too, he scored five goals, made three assists, created 46 chances and fashioned 43 key passes in just 12 games. Unfortunately, an ankle injury sustained in November stopped him in his tracks and it could rule him out for up to another two months.
Child’s Play: Payet has made Premier League defences look like dummies
Honourable Mentions: Gerard Deulofeu (Everton) and Sadio Mane (Southampton)
Striker: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
Where do you start with Jamie Vardy? His story? Only naturally. Non-league Halifax Town to Premier League Golden Boot via Fleetwood in four years is literally film worthy if the DailyMail are to be believed. In fairness, his rise has been something more akin to Hollywood film sets rather than English football pitches.
Vardy only scored five goals throughout last season as Leicester narrowly stayed up but the Sheffield-born striker has 15 in 17 currently, with 13 of them coming in 11 consecutive games – overthrowing Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of adding to the score-sheet for ten games on the trot.
While Wayne Rooney continues to struggle for United, England could may well have a trick up their sleeve in Vardy to lead the line at next summer’s European Championships in France.
Jamie Vardy’s having a party: The Leicester man can’t stop scoring
Honourable Mentions: Odion Ighalo (Watford) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton)