Joelinton’s and Joe Hart’s plight shows dire touch of the cold hand | Jonathan Wilson | Football

Seventeen minutes into Newcastle’s win over Sheffield United, Joelinton ran on to a through ball from Miguel Almirón. As he reached the box, three options were open: to use his left foot; to jab a finish with the outside of his right, probably in at the near post or through the keeper’s legs; or to open his body in the style of Thierry Henry and bend it right-footed in at the far post.

In the end his attempt appeared some horrible amalgam of the latter two and he scuffed a shot that reached Dean Henderson – just – on its second bounce.

It was a horrible moment. Here was a professional player, a 23-year‑old who had shown great promise in the Bundesliga, who had cost £40m, so devoid of belief, his faith in his ability so shattered he produced a shot that would have drawn derision on a playground.

Beyond the questions about decisions that led to Salomón Rondón being replaced by such a different player, there is something a little sad about Joelinton’s plight.

Newcastle fans seem to have reached the stage with him Sunderland fans reached with Jozy Altidore, whereby even attempts to encourage end up sounding sarcastic. Joelinton did score his first league goal for 10 months later in the game and that may spark something in him, although few will read too much into a tap-in that was the third in a 3-0 win when the pressure was off.

Confidence can be a desperately fragile thing and is so nebulous it is the attribute analysis seems to have found hardest to map. Statistics can at times seem to regard players as automata with fixed levels of efficiency. Ben Cohen’s book The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks traces attempts to measure confidence in sport through the “hot hand” theory in basketball – the idea players sometimes go on streaks when it feels they can’t miss.

A study of the Philadelphia 76ers published in Cognitive Psychology in 1985 by Tom Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky seemed to prove the hot hand didn’t exist (although, as a layperson with little understanding of basketball, it seems odd the artificial conditions in which the study was conducted didn’t raise doubts).

For decades that was the orthodoxy and anybody in sport who felt or had seen the effect of confidence was dismissed as having succumbed to the human tendency to identify patterns in randomness.

A paper by Joshua B Miller and Adam Sanjurjo, published in Econometrica in November 2018 exposes a major statistical flaw in the initial paper; whatever questions can be raised whether that study replicates the conditions of sport, it appears to demonstrate the “hot hand” does exist.

So, it would seem, does the opposite. Joe Hart is 33. It’s only four years since he was first choice for Manchester City and England. His reputation never quite recovered from the moment in the Euro 2012 quarter-final shootout when he stuck his tongue out at Andrea Pirlo in an attempt to out-psych him and was then Panenka-ed, but even after that he was an exceptional goalkeeper for several years.

Joe Hart has struggled for form since leaving Manchester City.

Joe Hart has struggled for form since leaving Manchester City. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

A Champions League performance against Borussia Dortmund later that year stands out but for a long time he seemed one of those rare goalkeepers who combined solidity with a capacity for the spectacular; he was one of those who seemed adept at getting in the way or at extending a long arm to divert a shot that seemed to have passed him.

Even in his penultimate game for England, a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup away to Slovenia, he made a remarkable save, pushing a near‑post header against the woodwork and then having the awareness, ability and strength to slap the ball away as he and it fell to earth.

It’s easy to forget the howls of outrage when Pep Guardiola decided there was no place for Hart at City. How dare he treat the England No 1 like that? He dared for a specific technical reason: he felt Hart, although a decent passer of the ball, was not quick enough at shifting the ball from one foot to the other.

Perhaps because he also recognised that Hart, as a vocal and confident figure who was respected within the club, could become a locus for the sort of resistance to his methods that, if the All or Nothing documentary is anything to go by, was expressed only by Fabian Delph. As it turned out, Claudio Bravo, the goalkeeper brought in to replace Hart, also then suffered a crisis of confidence.

Hart’s drift to the periphery has been extraordinary. Rejected essentially because he did not fit an extreme philosophy, he stumbled through loan spells at Torino and West Ham before this stint at Burnley. He has made saves and made mistakes but never looked anything like the keeper he once was.

David de Gea has apparently suffered a milder version of the same phenomenon since a miserable World Cup for Spain in 2018, as though his struggles to adapt to playing behind a high line for his country led him to doubt everything about himself.

What has happened to Joelinton and Hart is an extreme version of the feeling familiar to anybody who has played sport at any level and had one of those days when the muscles seize up, the brain freezes and you know long before it happens you’ll waste the next chance, fumble the next cross, drop the next catch or fluff the next putt.

For a professional, perhaps to be pitied is the worst outcome of all but Joelinton and Hart deserve sympathy at least. Players are neither distant characters to be berated nor emotionless bundles of attributes.

They are human and we are all vulnerable to the dread touch of the cold hand.

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