How do you solve a problem like Joe Hart?
Around 18 months ago, you would have struggled to find many voices suggesting anyone other than Hart for the England goalkeeping spot.
Of course, he had his flaws as most goalkeepers do, but there was nobody else in the country to touch him. Hart was the undisputed No. 1, so far ahead of the rest that it was actually quite concerning for England fans—what would happen if he was injured?
Now, Hart's place is less certain, and not because some young upstart has muscled in to take his place.
Hart's form has been declining quite alarmingly for the last year or so, his "uncharacteristic" mistakes suddenly becoming troublingly characteristic, flaws in his technique magnified and his tendency to flail at crosses, half-punching, half-waving at the ball, has become close to chronic.
Of course, many keepers are not confident in the air, but the most back-handed way of praising goalies is to say they're "good shot-stoppers." One wonders how a goalkeeper would get to the stage of being a professional if they weren't good shot-stoppers—it's a given, a little like saying an outfield player is good at kicking the ball.
The really worrying thing for Hart, Manchester City and England is that his shot-stopping appears to have gone south, too.
Witness the two he conceded as City were outclassed by Bayern Munich this week—both relatively powerful shots, but Hart got a hand to both and they still went in. Hart is not a man one associates with a deficiency in self-confidence (what short-haired goalkeeper would take part in a shampoo advert if they weren't fairly sure of themselves?), but that is exactly what those two goals scream of.
Much like a confident striker would strike a shot emphatically and with gusto, a confident goalkeeper would keep that same shot out if he managed to lay a hand on it.
That self-belief will return at some point—anything could bring it back, really, be it a good clean sheet or a big save or a particularly flattering shot of his hair—but what of England? Roy Hodgson reassured Hart this week that he was his No. 1, which again was something of a back-handed compliment given the paucity of options.
Fraser Forster seems to be the flavour of the month, largely due to his excellent performances in the Champions League for Celtic, but can his candidacy be taken seriously when playing in such a poor division each week?
Forster is a fine keeper, but his aerial weakness is arguably more worrying than Hart's. John Ruddy is the other keeper in the England squad, but his form has been patchy too, and beyond those names things really start to get scary.
Ben Foster is the only other first-choice for a Premier League team, and the West Brom keeper currently has a broken foot. David Stockdale and Jack Butland are the best of the younger keepers, and neither is first-choice at his respective club.
Indeed, while plenty is thought of Butland, currently on loan at Barnsley, there is little tangible evidence of his ability (at the highest level, anyway) thus far. He's highly rated, but then again so were the likes of Scott Loach and Frank Fielding. Those two are currently on Ipswich's bench and with League One Bristol City, respectively.
So for now, with vital World Cup qualifiers coming up against Poland and Montenegro, it looks like Hodgson and England will have to muddle on with Hart, and hope for the best. Good luck, Roy.
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