Man City's Joe Hart looks to West Ham loan to help salvage reputation
For the second summer in a row, Joe Hart is facing a move and a fresh challenge.
This year, things have been slightly less rushed than 2016's last-minute loan move to Torino. This time there's less of a feel that the goalkeeper, deemed unnecessary by Manchester City, was forced into the only option available to him. West Ham seem delighted to have him -- and understandably so given they conceded more goals (64) than relegated Middlesbrough last season.
Hart inspires curious emotions in some people. Many have strong opinions, believing he's either brilliant or useless, with little middle ground. A more reasonable conclusion is that Hart is a very good keeper, but flawed; capable of outstanding saves but also baffling errors, with a boisterous personality that either feeds his confidence or disrupts his concentration.
In Italy he was highly-rated by some, a goalkeeper who came for every cross and made some outstanding saves, but was equally one who seemed to make a blunder every other week.
Perhaps Hart is the most extreme victim of the goalkeeper's primary burden -- that their mistakes are high-profile and their competence barely noticed -- but the hope that a season in Serie A might have ironed out his problems and primed him for a bigger move proved unfounded.
There's a reason that, with the greatest respect to Torino and West Ham, a goalkeeper who some rank among the best in the world played for the ninth-best team in Serie A last season and has just signed for the 11th best in the Premier League. It was perhaps telling that Everton, in need of a goalkeeper, saw less of a risk in spending £30 million on the 23-year-old Jordan Pickford, a man with less than a season of top-flight experience, than signing Hart, who at 30 is theoretically approaching his prime.
Hart's famous willingness to "front up" -- admitting his mistakes and taking some sort of ownership of them -- was at some point an admirable characteristic, but latterly it has only really served to highlight how many mistakes he makes. And probably the most concerning aspect of his game is not so much the mistakes, but the basic nature of them and how often they're repeated.
Positioning and footwork errors, shown a few times during his year in Italy and England games -- notably at Euro 2016 and against Scotland this year -- suggest a man who, for whatever reason, isn't learning.
Perhaps it's his obvious and ostentatious confidence that is to blame for that?
"Goalkeepers are always going to make mistakes, and they're always going to make their 'worldie' saves," Tony Coton, former City player and Manchester United goalkeeping coach, tells ESPN FC.
"But the biggest thing is how they react to those mistakes afterwards. That gives you a big insight into the character of the goalkeeper. As you get older, it's easier to react to that because you've dealt with that so many times. You need to look at it, reflect on it, then forget it. And the quicker you can do that, the better it is."
Is it possible Hart has taken this basic lesson of goalkeeping to the extreme? That he has made mistakes and forgotten about them so quickly that he doesn't know how not to repeat them? In this respect, he's probably one of the most interesting English footballers of this generation, a man whose confidence is his biggest strength and his biggest weakness.
It could also bring further attention to his errors: Hart is a keeper who, perhaps to compensate for mistakes and prove his confidence, comes for every single cross, so it's inevitable he will miss some. And those he does miss end up as a gaffe, a shareable clip on social media, accompanied by a caption along the lines of "Oh, Joe ..."
You might think this confidence might have taken a knock given how rapidly he was both dismissed by City, and not signed by a team of similar stature. Coton isn't so sure.
"Joe's confidence would not have been dented," he said. "His ego might have been dented, but not his confidence."
And the key is that should he be able to limit the damage to his ego -- his is a career that need not slide into failure and obscurity.
At West Ham, he will be dealing with a familiar league in familiar surroundings, with familiar coaching. It's easy to place the blame for any struggles in Italy at someone else's feet, but the latter point is a salient one.
"The Italian style of coaching is very slow, very methodical," says Coton. "It wouldn't have been my kind of coaching. I've watched many sessions in Italy and for me it wasn't sharp enough, it wasn't quick enough. Maybe Joe suffered from that."
It might seem like a cop-out to suggest unfamiliar coaching is the cause of Hart's problems, and it certainly isn't the only reason, but it can certainly be a contributory factor.
"You all have your favourite coaches that you get on with personally," continues Coton, who rates the man Hart will be working with at West Ham, former England keeper Chris Woods, highly.
"They'll know you inside out, who knows how to get the best of you, how to speak to you pregame, postgame. It's a bit like a player in an individual sport -- you have a coach or a mentor, because the goalkeeping coach has such a small group to work with."
The hope that Hart will be able to work on his game away from the brightest glare is a fanciful one, because this is the Premier League after all. But perhaps at West Ham he will return to his early career form.
With a World Cup on the horizon, and young pretenders Pickford and Jack Butland lurking, this is probably the most important season of Hart's career.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.