In the Sheikh Mansour era, Manchester City has soared to heights that few fans would have dreamt of. The club has bought big in each transfer window, while also investing heavily in its academy. And while the club is not quite among the continental heavyweights yet, it is fast becoming a perennial contender for the domestic title, having already won the league twice this decade.
Among the players, there are many who have a claim to being the face of this era. While the first major signing, Robinho (bought from Real Madrid for €42.5 million) failed to make an impact, others such as Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Yaya Touré have regularly given dazzling performances in the sky blue shirt.
In defence, though, frugality has served City much better than splashing the cash. Arguably the best (and the unluckiest) centre-back in the league, Vincent Kompany cost the club a meagre €8.5 million. Pablo Zabaleta was bought for €8.7 million, while Gaël Clichy was prised from Arsenal for €7.75 million.
But the biggest bargain City made was for Joe Hart. He was bought for only €900,000 from Shrewsbury. While he wasn’t quite the finished product then, after a few loan spells he came back to City and became the undisputed No. 1. Since then, he has saved penalties in important Champions League fixtures, rallied the troops in captain Kompany’s absence and generally been the final wall behind what, at the best of times, is a shaky defence. He also took over the England goalkeeper’s position and has been a fixture in the national team for the last few years.
Not good enough
And yet, all of this has seemingly failed to convince new manager Pep Guardiola that Hart is good enough for the City first team. Guardiola kept Hart on the bench for the first two competitive matches of the season, instead playing Willy Caballero in goal. Guardiola wants good build-up play and felt that Caballero would provide that.
Except Caballero does not provide that. His ball distribution was poor and, more than once, he picked out an opposition player while passing the ball under little pressure. He did come up with some good reflex saves, but nothing that we haven’t already seen from Hart.
That Caballero is not an elite keeper is hardly a secret. He was brought from Malaga to provide backup to Hart. At 34, his best years are behind him and while he is a useful backup option, it is ludicrous to imagine him in a starting role for a team playing Champions League football. Considering his age and talent, he is hardly the building block that a world-beating team will be built on.
Even if one assumes that Hart will be sold or loaned out in this transfer window, it still doesn’t make sense to play Caballero ahead of him. Quite simply, Hart is a better keeper. Now, if City had already bought a new keeper (either Claudio Bravo or Marc-André ter Stegen, depending on who you choose to believe) and Guardiola was playing him, then it would make sense. But out of Hart and Caballero, it is an obvious choice to play Hart.
Unless Guardiola doesn’t plan to sell Hart at all.
During Manuel Pellegrini’s first season in charge of City in the 2013-'14 season, Hart made a series of high-profile errors that led the manager to replace him with Costel Pantilimon. Hart took the setback in the best way possible and won back his place by impressing Pellegrini in training. He then went on to win the Golden Glove award for the most clean sheets kept that season.
Guardiola is a meticulous manager and surely knows that Hart responds well to adversity. While Hart is an excellent show-stopper, Guardiola has doubts about his footwork and ball distribution. Is it then possible that Hart was dropped merely to fire him up and ensure that he puts in that extra effort in training and becomes the ball-playing keeper that Guardiola wants?
Hart has been an elite keeper for the better part of this decade. His playing in the team also ensures that City conform to the league’s rules that require a certain number of home-grown players in each team. Also, while the Abu Dhabi United Group has shown an astonishing capacity to pump money into the team, surely the finances would better be used to shore up the defence in front of Hart. The full-back positions remain problematic, as none of the contenders are world-class and are also on the wrong side of 30. And unless Guardiola decides to keep faith in Eliaquim Mangala, another centre-back might be needed as well.
The benefits of keeping Hart and training him to be more comfortable with the ball at his feet far outweigh the cost of buying a foreign keeper and then buying more English players to fulfil the home-grown quota. And Guardiola would know this.
The Spaniard did not get to where he is by taking the obvious route. Yet, he is not a manager who will shake things up just for the sake of it. Hart has shown earlier that he is willing to fight for his place and come back stronger when dropped. City fans will be hoping that he can find that same spirit and come back a more complete keeper.