At the beginning of last season, Joe Hart was being touted as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but meaningful discussion of that faded throughout last season. Manchester City’s number one struggled through a decent but inconsistent 2012-13; certainly not the dominant campaign you’d expect from such a lofty reputation. Coming into this year, though, there was very little talk of Hart persisting in with his troubles, the inherent assumption being the 26-year-old would recover.
Against Newcastle last week, he was rarely tested. And for the most part against Cardiff, Hart had an easy day. A easy day, that is, until the final 30 minutes, with the Bluebirds scoring three times to take a 3-2, upset win over Manchester City.
Particularly given how the second, go-ahead goal went down, you can expect to see a good deal of debate about Hart’s performance. The first goal may also draw some ire, though really, when the other team’s striker’s allow to blast a shot off you come close range, sometimes it’s all a keeper can do to keep the ball out. Hart may have left Fraizer Campbell’s shot for an easy Aron Gunnarsson goal, but it’s a bit greedy to want him to do more.
And in fairness, few will feel that way (I’ll stop stuffing this shirt with straw). The third goal, however — Campbell’s header from a 87th minute corner — falls squarely on Hart’s shoulders, the type of beguiling mistake that had drawn criticism over the last year-plus. On an in-swinging ball from the right corner, Hart chose a poor angle, getting caught up with Gunnarsson in the six such that he ended up under (not meeting) the ball. Campbell beat Pablo Zabaleta in front of goal head into an open goal from three or four yards out, a distance at which Hart should be catching the ball.
Though the final score won’t show it (with both teams adding another goal), this was a crucial tally. With 11 minutes left, Cardiff City had gone up one in a game Manchester City had controlled. It’s not just that Hart should never concede that goal. The timing plays into it as well.
To be fair, the central pairing in front of Hart had never played together, but this wasn’t on Javi Garcia and Joleon Lescott. Hart was making mistakes last year behind Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic. At some point, both Manchester City and England have to decide whether these tendencies are endemic or aberrational.
There’s something about Joe Hart, though; something that makes you think he’ll come around. Maybe it’s the confidence he still mostly portrays. Maybe it’s the memories of his first seasons as City’s number one that linger in our mind. Maybe it’s he technique or raw athleticism. Or maybe it’s his reputation, inflated as it was.
Maybe, though, all those things are biasing a real evaluation, one that rarely happens once goalkeepers reach a certain status. Once they’re at the top level, certain goalkeepers are just good, no matter what they do. It’s so inconceivable that Iker Casillas could ever be benched or Gianluigi Buffon may actually be fading, even if their performances say otherwise. Perception is what keeps a Thibaut Courtois from generally being considered an elite keeper, and why Liverpool’s move from Pepe Reina to Simon Mignolet even gets debated. Reputation, whether you’ve established one or not, is a powerful thing in how we discuss goalkeepers.
Hart is established. He’s not going to lose his job. But who is the real Joe Hart? The player that inspired best in show evaluations? Or the player we’ve seen for the last 13 months? It’s something that will be discussed in the wake of Sunday’s performance.