Joe Hart admits Manchester City’s shaky start to the defence of their Premier League title is “inexplicable”, but insists there is no sense of panic at the Etihad Stadium.
By Mark Ogden
City’s historic success last season was founded on the firmest of foundations but their defensive stability has crumbled this year.
Hart, who has claimed the last two Golden Glove awards for the Premier League goalkeeper with the most clean sheets in a league campaign, has already been beaten nine times in six games for City and is still waiting for his first shutout.
“It is inexplicable – I really don’t know why things have changed,” he said. “We are not doing anything differently. Sometimes goals go in. That’s football, isn’t it?
“Things have just been falling to people, like the one against Arsenal last Sunday. Joleon [Lescott] headed it away, Laurent Koscielny has gone to tackle and the ball has almost got stuck to his foot and he’s smashed it in. That’s the way it is.
“It could have hit the bar and we would have kept a clean sheet, but we have to be optimistic. We know we are doing the right things. We are tried and tested. We closed games out last season, but then people were getting blocks and shots were hitting me. It isn’t a case of having no luck, it’s just how it is.”
For all his public bullishness, however, Hart is clearly affected by the defensive frailties that have shown up at the outset of City’s defence of the Premier League title.
The England goalkeeper has seen the City back four change on a game-by-game basis this term, with only captain Vincent Kompany immune from the tinkering of manager Roberto Mancini. Even Hart, recognised as one of Europe’s outstanding goalkeepers, is struggling to stem the flow of goals.
At Fulham on Saturday, the 25 year-old will have to wait until an hour before kick-off until learning who will protect his goal against Martin Jol’s team. Kompany will be there, but identifying the Belgian’s defensive partner, from Lescott, Kolo Touré and Matija Nastasic, would be like pinning a tail on a donkey.
Yet despite the uncertainty and the suggestions that City are suffering a hangover from last season’s dramatic title success, Hart insists Mancini’s changes are valid and that the players are capable of overcoming their underwhelming start to the season.
“The manager does know his best team.” Hart said. “He has chopped and changed when necessary, but I don’t think he is searching for anything. Yes, it irritates me when I don’t keep a clean sheet, because you never want to let in a goal, no matter what the circumstances.
“Even if you are 3-0 up, it does infuriate because my job is to keep the ball out of the net. But last season has nothing to do with our form. Last season is last season. A lot has happened since then, the Euros, World Cup qualifiers, the Olympics.
“We are a new side ready to go, but we just have not got the results that we wanted. We have been there to be shot at for a while, though, so I don’t think actually winning the title makes any real difference. We haven’t had the start we had last year but, then again, we might not have the January we had last year either.”
With a title medal to his name and 24 England caps, Hart has developed a blunt edge to the more outgoing personality of his youth, a change evident in his critical assessment of City’s 3-2 Champions League defeat against Real Madrid recently.
Hart’s televised remarks, claiming City only had “ourselves to blame” and should not look for “pats on the back” for their stirring performance, were reminiscent of Roy Keane in their brutal honesty, prompting Mancini to hit out at his goalkeeper for giving an opinion usually reserved for the manager.
That spat has since been dismissed by Mancini as a misunderstanding, with the Italian insisting he welcomes a self-critical dressing room, and Hart remains unrepentant about his view of the game, which City lost having led 2-1 with three minutes to play.
“You play to win,” Hart said. “There is no part of me that is happy about how we lost and I feel that way wherever we go, whether it is the first round of the FA Cup or in the Bernabéu.
“We played b—– well and there were moments we can all look back upon, but we lost. In the Champions League, the margins for error are much thinner. In the Premier League, I wouldn’t say you could get away with losing, but you have 38 games. Here you have six and we’ve lost one.”
Playing for England in Euro 2012 proved even more cut-throat, with a penalty shoot-out defeat against Italy in the quarter-finals ending Hart’s hopes of adding international success to his club honours.
Another tournament, another penalty shoot-out heartbreak, but Hart insists he has drawn a line under the disappointment – even if the problems from 12 yards remain.
“A shoot-out is what it is. You miss the penalty and you are going to lose. We missed two, their keeper saved one, I didn’t save any, you do the maths,” he said.
“You can analyse penalty shoot-outs all you want, but we could have one right now and five of you journalist boys could beat England.”