Connect in the back of the net

Manchester City smoothly booked their place in the group stages of the Champions League on Wednesday night but with the tie with Steaua Bucharest done and dusted following the 0-5 victory in the first leg, the return meeting was allowed to turn into the last act of the Joe Hart circus.

Hart, to vocal support from the City fans that have grown to adore the goalkeeper in his ten years in Manchester, was playing what appeared to be his final game for the club, during which Claudio Bravo was putting the finishing touches to his £15 million move from Barcelona.

Bravo has since flied in to become Pep Guardiola’s new number one after Hart, established as City’s number one since returning from a loan spell at Birmingham in 2010, suddenly found himself playing second fiddle to Willy Caballero as Guardiola’s inaugural campaign kicked off.

 

Uncomfortable in build-up play

The Catalan is seeking a goalkeeper who is comfortable in building out from the back and Hart does not fit the ball.

Bravo, who completed 84% of his passes last season as Barcelona won La Liga, ticks the Guardiola boxes in the same way Victor Valdes and Manuel Neuer did; a small, agile presence who can dart away from his goal quickly to sniff out attacks when a high-defensive line is breached, and most importantly, somebody who is unworried by having the ball at his feet.

“He gave me a lot of confidence for his build-up play” said Guardiola after picking Caballero ahead of Hart for their opening day win over Sunderland and for a manager who is obsessed with control, the Englishman simply wasn’t going to tickle his fancy by giving the ball away 352 times like he did last season.

Nor would his tendency to punch when faced with a cross, his 39 punches last season, only Watford’s Heurelho Gomes recorded more, would be anathema to the Spaniard who wants his ‘keeper to catch and roll the ball out to initiate attacking moves.

Hart’s average of 20.6 passes per game last term, the lowest of all goalkeepers who managed more than 20 appearances in the Premier League, was always too much risk for a manager who views measured and incisive build up from his back-line as key to opening up opponents.

Guardiola acknowledged Hart’s status as a club legend on Wednesday but it will mystify the Spaniard why his decision, to him a simple one made for the benefit of his team, has caused so much furore.

“Today, in the world, people are afraid to take the decisions I like to make” he said, “but in the end I have a squad and I decide what I see.”

It is classic Guardiola, making ruthless decisions that he feels will benefit his team and given his record at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, trophies usually follow as a reward.

 

Over-reaction

The over-reaction to the dropping of Hart, the simple and well-justified exclusion of a player earning £110k a week, will not see him change the quixotic and steadfast beliefs he is wedded to.

It is doubtful that the Catalan, as one of the most decorated coaches in the game, is too bothered that Trevor Sinclair disagrees with him or that Joey Barton bizarrely described Hart’s omission as “disgusting”.

 

A long time coming

What Guardiola has seen, many will argue, has been a long time coming for a goalkeeper who has benefited from the limited competition provided by Caballero, and before him Costel Pantilimon, for too long.

For every stunning save or excellent performance, and there have been many as Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid may testify, there have been instances where Hart has failed to command his box or has been beaten unforgivably easy at his near post.

Those flaws also flared up again this summer for his country, with whom the term “England’s number 1” has always felt too arbitrary.

Again, Hart was handed too much of an easy ride as Jack Butland and Fraser Forster weren’t given enough opportunity to apply pressure to his position and it culminated with Gareth Bale and Kolbeinn Sightorsson leaving him floundering in two of the enduring images of England’s disastrous Euro 2016 campaign.

 

A much-needed jolt

Newly installed as England coach, Sam Allardyce has said Hart’s place in the squad is safe for now but has warned that it will be at risk should he fail to return to playing regularly at club-level.

This may be the jolt that the goalkeeper needs after years of plain sailing and the typical English over-indulgence of players that has elevated him above his true level.

Perhaps as a result of the homogenous English being ignorant to foreign influence or innovation, Hart has improved little over the past four years but Guardiola’s guidance, should he stick around to learn from the Catalan and his coaching team, may see that change.

That is if Hart is willing to learn and with interest in a loan deal from Everton now dead and the clock ticking on the summer transfer window, it seems like he will have to or else he will continue to watch the Guardiola revolution from the ignominy of the bench.

A huge increase on the 51% pass completion rate he posted last term is needed if he is to have any chance of changing Guardiola’s mind.

 

Bravo, more suited to Guardiola’s style

For the meanwhile he has Bravo, a goalkeeper who exhumes confidence and rarely makes mistakes while satisfying all of Guardiola’s elaborate demands.

Two league titles in two years with Barcelona as well captaining Chile to consecutive Copa America titles suggests he has the presence and leadership to go with a habit of winning.

“He is very good with his feet,” says Jose Mari Bakero, a former coach of Bravo’s at Real Sociedad. “He is very good at coming out and winning one-on-one duels with advancing forwards. He doesn’t commit early. He stands up well and then uses his excellent reflexes”.

Hart will now have to watch and learn.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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