Manchester City’s Joe Hart has for a long time been comfortable in his position as first-choice goalkeeper for both club and country, safe in his role and untroubled by underwhelming competition.
His overall form for Manchester City during painfully testing, high-octane matches in both the Premier League and the Champions League, as well as for England in both qualifying campaigns and at tournaments proper, has remained of a reliably good standard.
But despite his obvious talents, the former Shrewsbury Town man has long retained a reputation for the odd mistake which would indelibly prove costly over the course of a season.
And given his long-reigning status as an undisputed number one, can the emergence of Stoke City’s Jack Butland on the international scene as a genuine alternative spur the City man on to new heights?
Mark Hughes’ man between the posts has enjoyed a superlative season, making the third most saves in the Premier League this season, 40 after 12 matches, and his form is beginning to pose the question over whether Butland deserves the England number one jersey ahead of Hart.
Since Hart became City’s first-choice keeper in 2010/11 no one has kept more clean sheets in the Premier League than his 87, demonstrating that the England man has the genuine ability to match the very best in the world, albeit perhaps not on as consistent a basis as he would have liked.
But since he was dropped in late 2013, Hart’s improvement has been noticeable, and can be attributed to the arrival of Argentine Willy Caballero from Málaga, putting more pressure on Hart than Costel Pantilimon ever did.
As a result, his occasional ricks have become rarer, and he has even tapped into a performance level to rival the world’s very best, such as when City played Barcelona at the Camp Nou in March of this year.
Butland – a much more dynamically imposing keeper than Caballero in current form – has the undoubted potential to replace Hart in the England team, and as a result, the demands on Hart to improve are being ramped up, hopefully to England and City’s benefit as he seeks that consistent brilliance that the world’s best keepers demonstrate.
As is the case with the likes of Manuel Neuer, David De Gea and Gianluigi Buffon, the presence of a high-quality back-up has proven crucial in keeping the first-choice keeper on edge with regards to maintaining the highest of standards.
Neuer has the likes of Bernd Leno, Marc-André ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp to keep him true, Buffon has Mattia Perin and Salvatore Sirigu and David De Gea’s personal battle with Iker Casillas for the Spanish number one jersey is well-documented.
England, on the other hand, have historically boasted back-up keepers of a relatively lesser caliber in Robert Green, Ben Foster, Fraser Forster, and Tom Heaton.
There is precedent for Hart responding well. Since he was dropped for seven league matches in November and December 2013, Hart has come back into the Man City side to great effect, playing 69 matches for the club, conceding just 58 goals and keeping 31 clean sheets.
So the exponentially improving Butland could just the man to help Hart go from occupying a space amongst the very good keepers in the world, to becoming one of the best.
Joe Hart’s Manchester City Premier League record since being dropped in 2013:
Played: 69, Won: 47, Drawn: 12, Lost: 10, Goals Conceded: 58, Clean Sheets: 31, Clean Sheet Average: every 2.2 games.
In the same time period:
Petr Cech: Played: 34, Won: 26, Drawn: 4, Lost: 4, Goals Conceded: 18, Clean Sheets: 21, Clean Sheet Average: every 1.6 games.
David De Gea: Played: 63, Won: 33, Drawn: 14, Lost: 16, Goals Conceded: 63, Clean Sheets: 23, Clean Sheet Average: every 2.7 games.
Thibaut Courtois: Played: 35, Won: 21, Drawn: 10, Lost: 4, Goals Conceded: 35, Clean Sheets: 13, Clean Sheet Average: every 2.7 games.
Simon Mignolet: Played: 67, Won: 37, Drawn: 15, Lost: 15, Goals Conceded: 84, Clean Sheets: 23, Clean Sheet Average: every 2.9 games.
Image courtesy of Manchester City, viay Youtube, with thanks