For club and country Joe Hart has been Head & Shoulders above the rest for quite some time.
Not now. Not after last night’s horror show against the European champions when, not for the first time this season, after the final whistle all he’ll have wanted to do was Wash & Go. I jest. Yet, it’s really not funny for the Manchester City and England number one.
I don’t see the 26-year-old’s greatest enemy as technique, confidence or concentration. Instead I think its complacency. When searching for reasons behind the keeper’s alarming dip in form, that’s where I’d start.
It takes a very strong character to keep pushing and pushing to make improvements to their game, when a place in the first team is guaranteed. The greatest players do it without thinking. To them, what those around them are doing is irrelevant; it’s all about striving to be the best they can be and maximising their potential. If you asked most professionals they will say that’s them, but it’s not true. Not everyone is made of the same stuff.
I wasn’t. As a youngster with Arsenal I had the world at my feet, and feeling far too safe in the knowledge that staff at Highbury thought a lot of me at the time, I rested on my laurels without even realising it. They rate me, I’ll be here forever I subconsciously thought. By the time it dawned on me that I was wrong, it was too late.
Most footballers need an element of pressure on their shoulders to produce their best performances. Knowing a quality replacement is sat on the bench waiting for you to have a stinker, waiting to take your job, usually provides enough motivation to keep a player on his toes.
Outfield players have that positive fear to deal with every time the whistle blows. Do number one goalkeepers? Does Joe Hart? I’m not convinced. There is a fine line between being on edge and showing edginess. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with having to cope with the former - yet Hart hasn’t dealt with that feeling in years.
Now, after three mistake-ridden matches for Manchester City this term - plus another for England – the Etihad custodian is suddenly showing signs of the latter. Beating himself up for every error, he’s uptight and nervous. And that’s a concern.
If the three strikes and you’re out rule applies to Manuel Pellegrini’s thinking, he’ll drop Hart for this weekend’s encounter with Everton. He’s still England’s best goalie and still the club’s best goalie, but what message would it send to Costel Pantilimon if his rival got away with yet another costly error?
The Romanian has his own career to think about, and if it was me I’d slam a transfer request onto Pellegrini’s desk next Monday morning if Hart was given another chance. No one can be untouchable. It’s unhealthy for team morale. Dropping a big-name goalkeeper isn’t as easy as I suggest of course. City’s Chilean boss has to put the club first, but he’ll also be well aware it’s a decision which could harm Hart’s career.
Pantilimon could easily come into the side – as Diego Lopez has done at Real Madrid since displacing Iker Casillas – and perform heroics. As a consequence, sat on the sub’s bench throughout a World Cup season, the England man will be left devastated.
It wouldn’t be great news for Roy Hodgson either. Cautious by nature, he will be loath to gamble on Fraser Forster or John Ruddy at such a critical time. Yet if Hart isn’t playing first team football, at some stage he will have to.
With a new manager that doesn’t know him well enough to let personal feelings obstruct his decision, Joe Hart will be a very worried man in the coming days.
But it’s not all bad news for him. If the Englishman is axed, you can be sure complacency will never rear its ugly head (or shoulders) again.
Can City bounce back against Everton on Saturday? Check the latest odds here.