Manchester United's disappointing start under David Moyes has dominated the early season headlines, sitting 12th place on seven points through six matches in the Barclays Premier League. It's been a tough go for United supporters feeling mortal for the first time in ages. The 4-1 loss at Manchester City a fortnight ago highlighted how far they have to go under the new manager. It could be a weekly feature in this space: The Missteps of Moyes.
We're not going there this week. Take solace United fans; all is not flawless on the other side of Manchester either. Manchester City looked a dominant force that day: a class above their rivals. When the blue side of Manchester is on, few can touch the tactical superiority and overall quality they possess. Manuel Pellegrini is a wonderful manager. The Chilean has a cool demeanor and keen eye for the game. Manchester City under Pellegrini looks a more complete outfit than their cross-city rival. But Pellegrini isn't without early season challenges. Away form is a real issue, as is proper depth in defensive positions. In a season where even the top teams have fatal flaws, Manchester City need look no further than their number one goalkeeper as the biggest issue. Pellegrini's decision on what to do about the struggling Joe Hart will determine the success or failure in the early days of his City tenure.
A goalkeeper's role is very simple. Save what you can get your hands on and don't make mental errors that leave your backline vulnerable. Of course, there's the catch, punch, communicate, distribute, and proper positional aspects of the game as well. But none of the tasks are too complex in nature.
It's when these basic tasks become a chore, and ultimately blundered over, when a change at the position must be made. Confidence is key. The Manchester City and England No. 1 goalkeeper, Hart has none at present time. His play has been indecisive and unconvincing dating back to last season. You can see it in his body language. It's plain to see in his regular hesitation on the field. His inability to come up with saves at crucial moments has become borderline epidemic. This is nothing new to England goalkeepers. The revolving door and lack of consistency has plagued English goalkeepers since the days of David Seaman. Hart is just the most recent case. Don't call Hart cursed; call it a temporary dip in form that's lasted longer than expected.
Hart, 26, captured the number one job at City to start the 2010-11 season. He cemented himself ahead of Shay Given, and proved worthy of the role with standout play. Back to back Golden Glove awards culminating in helping City to their first League title in 44 years in 2011-12 showed his talent. Since that time, Hart has been inconsistent at best, failing to maintain his lofty standard in often frustrating fashion. Highlight reel save one moment, to lapse in concentration or improper positioning the next. With a top-team in front of him, reliability is essential. The seeming lack of faith of the manager, and even worse the body language of his teammates as of late does nothing to secure faith in him leading City from the back.
“The three goals, I think we can do better, not only the goalkeeper,” said Pellegrini after a 3-1 loss in Champions League to Bayern Munich. The manager is unwilling to throw his goalkeeper under a bus. His team was nowhere near up to par, and Bayern Munich was clearly the dominant side. The result was not on Hart. The goalkeeper was part of the mess. His play, poor, and on the Champions League stage, Hart has to do better; much better. Hart was beaten near post with his hand on the ball on the first and third goals. Better positioning and firmer wrist and the goals would have been kept out. And on the second goal, Thomas Muller got behind the back line far too easy and Hart, as he failed to do so last weekend on the match-winner for Aston Villa, hesitated, didn't get big and didn't properly time his approach. It all ended with egg on Hart's face, looking lost.
The Premier League losses to Aston Villa and Cardiff City highlighted indecision on Hart's part and the critics' voices grow louder and greater in number by the day. Gary Neville, Roy Hodgson's assistant in the England side and television commentator politely acknowledged Hart should have done better against Bayern Munich. Pellegrini nor Hodgson can ignore the subpar play of their goalkeeper and the subsequent calls for change. It's a fragile position for the managers, especially for Pellegrini. City surely needs Hart at his best, but England does as well heading into the crucial final two matches which will determine whether they punch their ticket to Brazil next summer.
Pellegrini cannot let the latter effect his words or decision in the coming days towards Hart. He must do what's best for the club. To the onlooker, it's quite clear: Hart needs some time on the sideline, out of the line of fire, to sort out his issues. If it were not for a striking lack of depth and ready-made options, it's time for Hart to lose his No. 1 job for country, and for club to follow suit, at least for the time being.
The argument will be made Hart is the only choice for England. Fraser Forster nor John Ruddy have International experience to give confidence in big games for England against Poland and Montenegro – virtual must wins for World Cup qualification. A bold move by Hodgson going with Forster or Ruddy would open old wounds, bringing back memories of Scott Carson's blunder in his England debut in a 3-2 loss to Croatia seeing the Three Lions fail to qualify for Euro 2008. Then manager Steve McClaren was ridiculed for his goalkeeper selection and was fired the next day. Does Roy Hodgson have the courage to take a similar ‘risk' and try the same?
Blaming inexperience among back-ups is a cop-out. Form should be the best indicator of who should start. Hart is not in form. The argument can be made Forster's top play in the Champions League for Celtic warrants serious consideration. A player featuring in the Scottish Premier League may be too big of a leap of faith. Without a Buffon or Casillas to rely upon, Hodgson will stick with Hart and hope for the best. Two good games are all he needs. Hodgson will hold his breathe.
Pellegrini must take a longer view. Does he want to entrust Hart in important matches this season and beyond? Loyalty is earned, not easily given by a new manager. The early returns haven't been good. January may not be the time to dip into the market for a goalkeeper if faith in Hart is already lost. Next summer seems a better time to address the position if needed. Pellegrini must weigh his in-house options first to deal with the immediate task at hand. Back-up goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon warrants a look. The Romanian International is a big body and hasn't been given a chance to play significant time at the club. He doesn't have the resume or experience as Hart. But a new face may be suffice short term. Call it a stopgap measure and see how it plays out. Hart needs a few games to get his head straight. The status quo is not good enough.
Call this weekend's match against Everton the test. If Hart continues with his unreliable ways, look for Pellegrini to act. It may be early days for he at City, but these are important days nonetheless. In the ultra-competitive and unpredictable Premier League, a steady goalkeeper may be the difference between a title or not. Right now Pellegrini needs to think with his head, not with his Hart.
- Spurs have been the most impressive and consistent side we've seen through six Premier League matches. The depth at Andre Villas-Boas disposal is impressive, rotating his side to near perfection in all competitions. The ball movement has been very good and there is every reason to believe this group of new players in the team will continue to grow and develop continuity as the season progresses. The positive steps are plain to see, but work is still to be done. The second half performance in a 1-1 draw with Chelsea shows they have maturing to do before making the next step. It was a match they were in complete control. Spurs let Chelsea off easy in a subpar performance by the visitors. The counter-punch of Jose Mourinho's side caught Spurs at a moment of weakness and once Chelsea was given a step, they took full advantage and grew into the match. Tottenham need to learn how to take full control of matches as such at home. This type of maturity comes through experience. It's much different playing as the hunted rather than the hunter. They will grow from this and be better from it.
- West Brom's 2-1 victory over Manchester United, the club's first win at Old Trafford since 1978, was played in the media as more a United failure than the top play from the visitors. Steve Clarke's men are worthy of greater acknowledgement of how well they played. A slow start to the season had many pegging West Brom for a relegation battle. Positive performances in recent weeks have changed that tone. Without the injured goalkeeper Ben Foster, midfielders James Morrison, Chris Brunt, and striker Nicolas Anelka, Matej Vydra, Shane Long, and with Scott Sinclair limping off early, the team had ever reason to roll over at Old Trafford as so many have done before. The team had a coming of age performance, and could have put five past David De Gea if it were not for the intervention of the woodwork and United keeper. Newcomers Morgan Amalfitano and Stephane Sessegnon have put in back-to-back top performances, and 20-year old striker Saido Berahino has burst on the scene, looking very much the part. The backline will always be steady. It's having more quality in attack that will keep opposition honest. This isn't to say the current standard is sustainable. But the panic button is not being hit in the Midlands any longer.
- Hull City is becoming the sweethearts of the new Premier League season. The newly promoted Tigers have points in four straight in all competitions and is giving Steve Bruce's side the belief needed to compete in the top league. They've been winning with Captain Robert Koren on the sidelines. Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies have put in top performances through the spine of the team. They will be challenged over the next month with top scorer Robbie Brady on the sidelines after hernia surgery.
- You won't see a worse display of defending than Newcastle centre-backs Fabricio Coloccini and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa in a 3-2 loss to Everton Monday. Yanga-Mbiwa was especially palpable substandard display as Newcastle conceded three times in the first 45. The rest of the team play was fine. Without reliable play at the back, Alan Pardew doesn't have a chance. It's concentration and basic commitment that are lacking. You feel for the manager, who is clearly on the hot seat. There is nothing he can do about such pathetic defending other than not play the players. Unfortunately he is not blessed with top options. One thing he can do is bury the hatchet and start Yohan Cabaye. The Frenchman is top quality. His goal in the loss was outstanding. He's too good to be wasted on the bench.
- Arsenal was impressive again this week. Top wins over Swansea away and Napoli in the Champions League have the team riding a level of confidence not present at the Emirates in years. They've done so despite a rash of injuries. A more difficult schedule comes in November, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Southampton in consecutive weeks. The most important thing is to keep striker Olivier Giroud healthy with sufficient rest. The games are adding up. The return Nicklas Bendtner does leave a whole lot of confidence the team has enough depth in attack.
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