Another week, another calamity for a Manchester City goalkeeper. Admittedly, this week’s entry was not as bad as many of the other mistakes this season, as Eden Hazard’s first goal for Chelsea against City, for which Willy Caballero has taken the blame, took a slight deflection off the head of Vincent Kompany. Regardless, it is likely that a better goalkeeper than Caballero would have saved it. The problem for City and for Pep Guardiola in particular is that they already have that “better goalkeeper” and his name is Joe Hart.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to think of a worse decision by a new manager than Guardiola’s decision last summer to ditch Joe Hart. Hart may not be in the true elite of world goalkeepers, but he is certainly better than either Caballero or the man who was signed to replace him, Claudio Bravo.
It is probably a testament to the awe with which Guardiola was held in England before his arrival that he received relatively little criticism for his decision to jettison Hart. That decision was undoubtedly made easier by Hart’s own troubles at the end of last season, culminating in his dreadful error for England against Iceland at Euro 2016, which compounded his earlier mistake in the tournament when he had failed to save Gareth Bale’s long-range free-kick for Wales.
That relative decline in form must be set against Hart’s overall performances for City and England over the last five or six seasons, when he has twice been part of a title-winning team for City and has undoubtedly been England’s No. 1 goalkeeper.
He has certainly made errors for Torino while he has been on loan to them this season from City, most recently his two mistakes in the game against Inter that cost Torino a rare victory over one of the Milan giants. However, his overall performances have been so good and his embracing of the Italian culture and language so impressive that he has been earmarked as one of the few goalkeepers who could possibly succeed Buffon at Juventus when he finally retires.
Of course, the main reason that Hart was abandoned by Guardiola was that the Spaniard wanted a ‘keeper who was more comfortable with the ball at his feet. This was so that Guardiola could implement his big idea, which has been described as perhaps the last great tactical revolution that is possible in football, namely that a goalkeeper should be able to join in with the other 10 players in a team, thus allowing a team to truly play with 11 players when in possession.
Perhaps the problem for Guardiola was that he was spoiled by having Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich. Neuer has often been described as a “sweeper-keeper”, a goalkeeper who often strays so far out of his area, cutting off opposition balls and allowing his defence and consequently his whole team to play much higher up the pitch. For all of Neuer’s supposed reinvention of the goalkeeping role, the fact is that so far very few other goalkeepers have been able to follow his lead. Among the very best of goalkeepers, only Hugo Lloris of Spurs is another comparable “sweeper-keeper”, and even he is not in Neuer’s class in that regard.
It is also worth remembering that much of Neuer’s now stellar reputation rests on his being a World Cup-winning goalkeeper, but in the 2014 World Cup final against Argentina he could easily have been sent off for his reckless challenge on Gonzalo Higuain. If Neuer had been sent off for that challenge, as he easily could have been, the whole “sweeper-keeper” revolution would probably have been stopped in its tracks.
Guardiola faces both short-term and longer-term goalkeeping problems. In the short term, he must ensure that, as a minimum, City qualify for next season’s Champions League. However, that task was made much more difficult by their losing at Chelsea and failing to finish off a wounded Arsenal in their previous game, eventually allowing the Gunners to escape with a draw. Now, with Arsenal having beaten West Ham in midweek, they a game in hand which, if they win, will bring them within a point of City.
Of course, City also face Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final, a game that Guardiola must win if he is to have any chance of replicating his early success at Barcelona and Bayern by winning at least one trophy in his first season at the club. With Caballero having had a poor game against Chelsea, will Guardiola be tempted to replace him with Claudio Bravo, who has not played for weeks, having been dropped after his own high-profile loss of form?
In the longer term, surely Guardiola needs a new ‘keeper, but the question is who? Most of the best goalkeepers in the world, for example Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea and David De Gea at Manchester United, are tied into long-term contracts at big clubs and will be impossible to prise away from them, even with City’s riches. And if he signs a younger, less experienced ‘keeper, such as Stoke’s Jack Butland or Southampton’s Fraser Forster, the danger is that they will take time to adjust to the pressures of playing for a big club, where every goalkeeping error is analysed and re-analysed in a way that just doesn’t happen lower down the food chain.
It may just be that Guardiola has to go back to Joe Hart, apologise for having doubted him and ask him to be his No. 1 again. Obviously, that is unlikely, given Guardiola’s track record of refusing to go back for players he has fallen out with. And even if he were to try again with Hart, the whole experience of having been abandoned by Guardiola in the first place may just have undermined his confidence to the extent that he will either never be as good a ‘keeper again, or he will decide, not unreasonably, to take his services to another club.
Guardiola has already admitted that, for many reasons, managing Manchester City is much harder than managing Barcelona or Bayern, and he is completely right. For one thing, because there are far fewer serious Champions League-chasing teams in both Spain and Germany, Barcelona and Bayern are both virtually guaranteed to qualify for the Champions League and thus can devote more energy to winning the thing than qualifying for it, in a way that English clubs perhaps cannot.
The real problem for Guardiola is that in addition to these existing problems, he has added one of his own, by jettisoning a good goalkeeper for two inferior ones. If they continue to keep making mistakes in the closing weeks of the season, City may not even qualify for the Champions League, let alone reach the FA Cup final, and then Guardiola, for all the hullabaloo surrounding his arrival at Manchester City, may find himself under genuine pressure for probably the first time in his celebrated managerial career.