Joe Hart looks set to continue as England’s No.1 for this week’s qualifiers with Slovenia and Lithuania, but his status in Gareth Southgate’s plans beyond that point gets considerably murkier.
Although the 30-year-old will still be the Three Lions’ most proven and experienced option by the time the World Cup in Russia comes around next summer, he won’t necessarily be the most in-form, the most popular or the most convincing.
England’s problems since Hart became the regular No.1 in 2010 stem much deeper than simply the quality of the individual between their sticks. In fact, in comparison to the vast majority of the outfield departments, Hart has ensured a far more consistent level of talent and experience during that period. He’s rarely created a headache for his managers, or doubts that he’s not the right man for the job.
And yet, Hart’s England career after 73 appearances is still awaiting a defining moment that truly justifies his lengthy incumbency – rather, as things currently stand, the 6 foot 5 shot-stopper will be mostly associated with an incredibly costly individual error during the Three Lions’ shock Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland.
The path Hart’s club career has taken doesn’t quite stack up either. At 30 years of age, Hart should be enjoying his peak period as a goalkeeper, when accumulated experience strikes the perfect equilibrium with ability and athleticism. But exiled from Manchester City and hardly uprooting trees during his loan spells with Torino and West Ham, Hart’s future at club level is even less clear than within the England fold.
In many ways, that reduces Hart’s mandate to hang onto the No.1 jersey. A few years ago, the irrefutable argument against dethroning Hart was simply that he was the English goalkeeper most frequently exposed to top-class football, not only within the England fold but also with City in the Champions League.
While that’s still true historically, Hart now finds himself on relatively level terms with the four goalkeepers rivalling him for No.1 status at the World Cup. Two of them – Jordan Pickford and Fraser Forster – ply their trade with clubs that finished higher than the Hammers in the Premier League last season, while none are involved in Europe’s top tournament this term. The closest England get is Pickford’s Europa League campaign at Everton, which will struggle to surpass the group stage after just one point gained from two games so far.
Similarly, with alternatives gaining ground behind him in the pecking order, Hart’s form this season must be equal if not superior to that of Jack Butland, Tom Heaton, Forster and Pickford. Although it may be premature to cast judgement on Hart’s West Ham spell after just seven league games, the first three of which his new side essentially capitulated in, it still feels as if Hart is going through the motions rather than using the year-long stay at the London Stadium as a chance to revive his regressing career.
In fact, excepting Heaton whose appearances have been limited by injury, Hart made the fewest saves of the five goalkeepers in reckoning for a spot at next summer’s World Cup and conceded the most goals – despite West Ham facing less shots per match than Burnley, Stoke and Everton. He’s also registered the joint-fewest catches while his distribution accuracy is some way short of Heaton and Forster’s, even though he’s got arguably the best target man in the Premier League to aim at in Andy Carroll.
On every metric we can judge goalkeepers on, Hart fares no better than middle of the class and at worst bottom of the class. It’s true statistics can never tell the whole story, but the anecdotal evidence backs it up as well. We’re yet to see Hart pull of a save worthy of his status as a top-class goalkeeper, but we have seen a handful of failed efforts that West Ham’s temporary No.1 could have done better with.
Indeed, Hart’s stint in east London appears to be more about the 30-year-old keeping himself fit for the World Cup next summer, almost assuming he’ll be the No.1 by default, than rediscovering a level of form that once had him marked as amongst the best in the world. Hart should be a talismanic presence for West Ham; so far, he’s not even proved a noteworthy upgrade on Adrian, the man he surpassed in the pecking order upon arriving in the summer.
At the same time, it’s hard to remember a period when England’s goalkeeping berth was so fiercely contested as it is now, harking back to the days of David Seaman, Nigel Martyn and Tim Flowers.
Forster’s sheer size makes him a highly-competent and largely consistent all-round goalkeeper, whose strengths are further embellished by those fabled performances against Barcelona in the Champions League during his Celtic days. Although his Premier League form has never quite been the same since a long-term injury in 2015, when the 29-year-old was tested at the very top of the game he passed with flying colours.
Then there’s Heaton, a talented goalkeeper who slips under the radar because Burnley aren’t the most fashionable of clubs. He’s impressed during both of the Clarets’ full seasons in the Premier League under Sean Dyche, but most particularly last term; despite Burnley conceding the second-most shots per match of any side in the division, Heaton still claimed ten clean sheets and ranked eighth in the top-flight save charts. Aged 31, Heaton has reached his goalkeeping peak at just the right time for England, but a long-term injury sustained last month will affect his chances of being involved in next summer’s World Cup.
The two options that truly force the consideration of demoting Hart from No.1 duties, however, belong to the new generation breaking through – Pickford and Butland, aged 23 and 24 respectively. Pickford’s assertiveness for a goalkeeper so young, and a goalkeeper who measures in at just 6 foot 1, particularly stands out, always coming off his line positively and aggressively and ever-barking orders at more senior team-mates. His Everton career hasn’t quite taken off just yet, but Pickford already looks like a natural leader – the current England team could certainly do with a few more of those, regardless of experience.
Butland, though, appears a level above his Toffees counterpart. In fact, the Potters No.1 often feels reminiscent of a young Hart – hungry, fearless and always seemingly saving his best form for the highest quality of opposition. From encounters with Arsenal and Manchester United alone this season, Butland produced 13 saves – one less than Hart has managed in seven games – and the clean sheet recorded against the Gunners earned him the Match of the Match award, not to mention three points for Mark Hughes.
There’s been a steady and consistent improvement to Butland’s game since first turning out for Birmingham City as a teenager and although the biggest criticism of his credentials remains limited experience at the highest level, the 6 foot 5 shot-stopper has rarely disappointed when facing world-class attacking players. In fact, he’s nearly always delivered.
Once again, the drastic difference between Hart and his rivals ahead of the World Cup is experience. Only Forster has plied his trade in the Champions League before, while Hart’s monopolisation of the England berth sees him vastly outrank the other four goalkeepers in terms of caps and the knowledge they bring.
But the inevitabilities of incumbency aren’t enough reason alone to keep Hart in the role; the Three Lions squad should be drawn up on merit and Hart’s form hasn’t been at a top-class level for some time. Even his last full season at Manchester City was largely disappointing, conceding more than one goal per appearance in the Premier League.
With so many convincing alternatives nipping at his heels, it’s time for Hart to relieve himself or get off the pot – right now, his England credentials are built on past glories alone. And if the current level of form represents Hart at his peak, England fans have a right to believe Butland or Pickford can surpass it over the coming years. The World Cup in Russia would be a fantastic place for either to start.
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