Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart was a relieved man when his former teammate Daniel Sturridge bailed England out in their 2-1 win over Wales on Thursday. As the No.1 walked through the mixed zone after the match, he asked reporters: “Why do you want to talk to me? I’m the villain. Talk to the heroes.”
The 29-year-old took a lot of the blame for the Welsh goal as Gareth Bale’s long range free kick crept into his net despite him getting two hands to the effort and the ball not really moving much in the air. It had to go down as a goalkeeping error more than an excellent strike.
The mistake highlights an attitude that’s been common around Hart throughout his time at City. For whatever reason, the goalkeeper has never been regarded as one of the club’s biggest assets. Those who dare to mention him in the same breath as some of the world’s current best — Manuel Neuer, David De Gea, or Gianluigi Buffon for instance — are often laughed at.
It’s got to the point where he’s almost taken for granted, as rumours circulated towards the end of the 2015-16 season that incoming manager Pep Guardiola was eyeing up Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Depending on the rumour, he was either to replace Hart or to provide more competition than Willy Caballero and Costel Pantilimon have in recent years.
The goalkeeper’s deficiencies are frequently overplayed. His distribution, especially his kicking, can be erratic when he’s attempting to hoof the ball to a teammate down the pitch. Drop-kicking from his hands or playing a goal-kick over the halfway line leads to the ball finding touch on more than a couple of occasions.
Despite City’s game largely revolving around playing from the back and the goalkeeper rarely being required to smack it long, it seems a little crazy that this is one of the biggest hang-ups about one of the best No.1s in the Premier League.
Hart gets heavily criticised for choosing to punch from crosses, too. Yet he rarely puts his teammates into trouble and the ball is out of harm’s way, with the defence able to set-up again for the next opposition attack. In fact, when it comes to clearances like that, the City keeper is good at getting his fists to the ball.
Despite criticism, he’s put in consistently strong displays for his club in recent years. Among them have been some superhuman showings, especially in the Champions League, where teams like Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund have peppered his goal with shots and he’s repelled virtually everything.
Hart has the most Golden Glove awards, given to the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets across a Premier League season, since the prize was brought in. He’s taken the accolade four times in total, one of which was in City’s 2014-15 campaign — where the defence was largely very shaky.
He was one behind Arsenal’s Petr Cech last season, when again the defence that was playing in front of him was largely ridiculed for its fragility.
What often goes unnoticed about Hart isn’t his shot-stopping ability. Aside from an occasional weakness to his left side, the City goalkeeper frequently pulls off saves that he shouldn’t be expected to — and many more from shots that nobody would blame him for conceding from. A lot of it comes down to great positioning and knowing where he needs to be to give himself the best chance of making the stop.
He saves a ridiculous amount of one-on-ones by spreading himself in such a way that he rarely sells himself to the striker, but that he covers a large amount of the goal. It isn’t a fluke that he’s able to rush the attackers and block the efforts as often as he does.
His reading of the game is largely excellent. Neuer is seen as the best when it comes to the so-called “sweeper-keeper” but one of Hart’s strengths is knowing when to leave his line and when to stay put. He’s rarely caught off-guard having come steaming out of his goal.
Above all else, Hart’s personality and mentality make him ideal for City. He’s got a confidence in his ability and a love of the game that he can laugh and joke with his opposition, which is often mistaken for arrogance. Instead, he’s nothing but professional and he won’t shy away from taking the flak when he’s put a foot wrong.
There are many issues with City’s squad for Guardiola to work out, but his goalkeeper isn’t one of them. One mistake for the national team at Euro 2016 doesn’t change that.