Pep Guardiola

Anyone picking Joe in goal is now going with their Hart instead of their Head

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.

 

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Pep Guardiola is new, different, and fresh. Get used to it.

Manchester City’s appointment and unveiling of Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was neither normal nor run-of-the-mill, but then Guardiola is not a normal or run-of-the-mill kind of guy, or manager.

We are approaching February of 2017. This time last year – February 1, to be precise, was the day in which the Citizens announced to the world, mid-way through the season, that ‘Charming Man’ Manuel Pellegrini, nicknamed after the renowned Manchester-based band ‘The Smiths’, was to depart the Etihad Stadium in June to be replaced by ‘Enigmatic Man’ Guardiola.

That in itself was bold and some suggested less-than-charming to the Chilean, Pellegrini, but there was more to come, in the shape of a fan parade. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours, demand exceeded supply, and over 20,000 people attended the event. The title of David Conn’s excellent book suggests Manchester City are richer than God, you could be forgiven for thinking they had just hired him as well. Maybe they had.

In his first 10 competitive matches in charge, City won all 10. The critics that said the King of Catalonia was going to struggle in a ‘more competitive’ league following title wins in Spain and Germany, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, looked like fools.

City were four points clear at the top of the Premier League, eight points ahead of current clear leaders Chelsea, and they had taken Europe by storm as well, winning their two qualifiers before demolishing Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0 in their opening group stage match. God. Call the sport off in September. We’re done for the year.

This had all been done with Claudio Bravo in goal too, who had been signed as part of the rebuilding process being done on the blue half of Manchester, as England number one Joe Hart, who had a disappointing European Championship with his country, was ousted and joined Italian outfit Torino on a season-long loan. Things then started to get interesting.

On September 28, Manchester City drew 3-3 in a frantic Champions League night at Celtic Park and a matter of days later Tottenham got a 2-0 win against them at White Hart Lane before City drew three of their next four games 1-1 – against Everton, Southampton, and Middlesbrough. Then you add in the fact that in that ten-match winning streak, City kept just three clean sheets and suddenly you have a scapegoat. Bravo.

Football, more often than one might think, reflects society. Wherever you look in the world of politics at the moment, people are scared of the new and the never-seen-before.

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union – this is uncharted territory as they are the only full member state to do so –  and America has elected climate change-denier, sexual assault-accused and disabled reporter-mocker Donald Trump as their President. These are scary times for those that don’t like change. Pep Guardiola is a man, albeit in a more trivial sense, that wants to change things but, regardless, people are scared.

A man that wants to play a goalkeeper that can’t keep goal, (Bravo has faced 59 shots this season and conceded 25 goals), because he wants his keeper to be his first attacker is one that opens himself up to ridicule from sections of both fans and the media. Being worshipped as the best thing to grace the Earth by those same sets of people does this as well, as does being prickly to those journalists that oh so adored you last weekend when you won 4-0 and those that don’t think you’ve proved yourself yet cannot wait for you to fail.

Initially, Guardiola was staunch of his philosophy. Bravo should be the first attacker, just like Victor Valdes was at arguably the greatest club side to grace the game, and just like Manuel Neuer was at his Bayern side and John Stones – a defender that, let’s face it, can’t really defend, should also be, and will become, the ultimate ball-playing centre back that gets City going.

In October he told journalists: “I think about that (changing), yeah but in the end the solution is not better than what I believe, so I cannot. In seven years I won 21 titles…I’m not going to change…if it’s not going well in the future I will go home.” By January, he was stating that “maybe (he) is not good enough for (his) players.”

Maybe Guardiola isn’t God after all, maybe for now he’ll have to settle for being Jesus. Establishing mega-rich Manchester City into the European elite is no miracle, but his second coming might not be too far away once his disciples and those who watch them, have understood his gospels.