In August, when it all seemed so much simpler, Manuel Pellegrini outlined his managerial philosophy. Manchester City, he proclaimed, would be a meritocracy with fairness, rather than favouritism, dictating team selection.
“Always we play the players who are giving the best performances and in the best moment,” the Chilean pledged.
In October, with decision-making complicated by mistakes, he was rather more evasive on the question of whether Joe Hart will, or deserves to, retain his place in goal. No wonder.
Hart has put Pellegrini in an impossible position and City in a difficult one in their quest to become champions.
Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge was a six-pointer, a meeting of two potential champions. Chelsea won it because Hart came out of his goal when he did not need to, an unsuspecting Matija Nastasic headed past him and Fernando Torres put the ball into the unguarded net.
While Hart yelled “keeper’s” when about two yards from Nastasic, it was too late. It was his fault. Again.
Because the reality is that City have lost four games this season and Hart has been the common denominator in the defeats, at fault for a goal every time.
Given the extent of Bayern Munich’s superiority at the Etihad Stadium in the Champions League, perhaps it mattered not that he should have saved Franck Ribery’s opener or, some felt, Arjen Robben’s clinching goal.
As he made a vital injury-time save to deny CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda an equaliser on Wednesday, perhaps he has made amends on the European stage, anyway. But not in England.
Brian Clough felt a good goalkeeper was worth an extra 10 or 15 points a season, a view Peter Shilton justified in his title-winning Nottingham Forest team in 1977/78.
This season, Hart’s contribution to the City cause is in the debit column. He cost them three points: losses to Cardiff City, Aston Villa and Chelsea, all by one-goal margins, can be traced to his errors, allowing Fraizer Campbell, Andreas Weimann and Torres to score.
Construct an alternative league table without Hart’s blunders and City would sit third, one point ahead of Chelsea. Instead, they are seventh, four points behind them.
In what is shaping up to be the tightest of title races, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur can all point to matches where their respective goalkeepers have made fine saves at pivotal points. City can lament games where Hart failure has been damaging.
So if, as Pellegrini promised, form dictates his team, Hart will be out. City’s summer spending gave them the reputation for having two high-quality players for every position. It is not quite true, as is shown whenever Vincent Kompany is absent and the alternative to the captain is vastly inferior: not in the centre of defence or in goal.
City do not possess a deputy of the capability of Chelsea’s Mark Schwarzer, Tottenham’s Brad Friedel or Everton’s Joel Robles. Instead, they have the Romanian beanpole Costel Pantilimon, an unconvincing understudy with an air of imminent disaster about him.
City have been linked with Willy Caballero, who played for Pellegrini at Malaga, but they have nine weeks to negotiate before the transfer window reopens.
It could be too late by then, unless Hart recaptures his form. That may be unlikely, since is recent failings cannot be dismissed as blip. Instead, it is a slump that dates back more than a year, a time littered by poor choices.
Rather than agility or acrobatic saves, goalkeeping is about decision-making. Hart’s has let him down rather too often, and not merely when opting whether to stay on his line or leave his penalty area.
His attitude was once seen as an asset, but there can be a fine line between confidence and cockiness. Hart vaulted it some time ago.
Perhaps Roberto Mancini recognised that success had gone to his head, which, coupled with the Italian’s lack of tact, was a reason why egos collided in the City camp.
If the sense was that Mancini’s firing could help restore him to his best, Hart’s fortunes have nose-dived further under the less-confrontational Pellegrini. While humility and reliability do not always go hand in hand, City could benefit from a more unassuming, more dependable presence in their goal.
They do not really need Hart to win them points. They just need him to stop gift-wrapping them to rivals.