Can Sunderland Striker Jozy Altidore Succeed in the Premier League?
Jozy Altidore’s recent transfer to Sunderland has excited many US soccer fans, not to mention the executives at NBC Sports; nevertheless, there is ample reason to take a more measured approach in defining our expectations of the 23-year-old. Yes, he scored 31 goals in the last campaign for AZ Alkmaar, as well as in four consecutive matches for the US men’s national team. And he has doubtless made significant improvements to his game during two years under manager Gertjan Verbeek. However, let’s not be so quick to forget that before his move to Holland, he scored a grand total of three league goals during three seasons in Europe and went a week short of two years without scoring in a competitive match for the USMNT.
Now, obviously the argument can be made that Altidore was only nineteen when he left the Red Bulls for Villarreal, and was subsequently loaned out to clubs that had no real stake in his development. Likewise, his struggles for the national team could be attributed to Jurgen Klinsmann’s lack of belief in him and the fact that the team as a whole was in pretty indifferent form. All these points are completely legitimate, but just as Altidore was not all of a sudden useless because he had a rough patch in his career, he is not automatically “one of the top strikers in Europe” as Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio recently described the American.
Managing expectations is not something soccer fans do particularly well, and US fans are particularly prone to error in this area, not necessarily because of ignorance, but because of their desire to see US players succeed abroad. Whether it’s expecting a ‘14-year-old’ Freddy Adu to be the next Pele, or Clint Dempsey to join a Champions League club for £20 million at 29-years-old after a good year at Fulham, or even Alexi Lalas’ infamous declaration that MLS is “on par” with the Premier League, it can be hard for some to take off their red, white, and blue tinted sunglasses.
Jeff Carlisle’s recent article for ESPN claims that the reported fee of £6 million Sunderland paid for Altidore, which could rise through various incentives, was “sobering to a degree.” This would be a fair point if Altidore had netted his 51 goals in 93 appearances in all competitions in, for example, Germany. Altidore’s strike rate of 0.55 goals per match compares favorably to Robert Lewandowski’s 0.43 during his first two years as Borussia Dortmund, when he was less than three months older than Altidore.
The problem is that the Eredivise, though a compelling technical league, is not always the best indicator of a striker’s potential. For every Van Nistelrooy, Romario, Ronaldo, even Suarez to come out of the Netherlands, there are the likes of Alfonso Alves, Mateja Kezman, Bjorn Vleminckx, and Mounir El Hamdaoui who have been unable to replicate their free scoring form outside of Holland. There is a reason newer fans of the game may not have heard of some of these players.
More recent examples such as Bas Dost and Luuk de Jong have also failed to make an impact after their moves to the Bundesliga, with the two averaging 0.71 and 0.51 goals per match in the Eredivisie but only 0.29 and 0.26 in the Bundesliga. Even players from Ligue 1, probably the most similar competition to the Premier League in terms of style of play and physicality, have taken time to adjust. The attacking nature of the Dutch top flight, combined with the fact that most teams support the striker with wingers on both sides in a 4-3-3 or in a true 4-2-3-1 formation means that #9’s tend to receive good service and thus score a lot of goals, particularly in transition.
What position and in what system Altidore will be playing in under Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland remains to be seen, with the Italian generally preferring some variation of the 4-4-1-1 during his brief time at the Stadium of Light. Will he be played through the middle, with Steven Fletcher coming back from injury, or out wide, as another Eredivise import, Dirk Kuyt often was during his time at Liverpool? Much will depend on what Di Canio views as the American’s best attributes.
Altidore is a good all-around striker; he is relatively quick, he has a strong upper body, he possesses good enough technique as well as decent finishing and movement. However, he does not truly excel in any one category. He is not great at holding the ball up and playing back to goal, and though he has improved his movement, he still does not work the channels as well as he could. He is capable in the air but not dominant, and while he gets himself in decent positions, he is not always lethal in front of goal. Furthermore, though he has shown his ability to combine on the counterattack during his time with AZ, he is not a player who is going to create a chance for himself or drop into the midfield and create for others when the opposition have men behind the ball.
Altidore requires good service to succeed and it is hard to see him consistently receiving that from a team that were in many ways lucky to avoid relegation. Those excited by the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus after seeing him at the Confederations Cup should keep in mind that though he is a player who will give his all in every match, he has not shown the ability to maintain the same level of play throughout the course of a whole season. Much of Altidore’s success at AZ was due to players like Adam Maher, who secured himself a move to PSV this summer, who were able to support Altidore in the attack.
All that aside, perhaps the biggest question Altidore has to face is, somewhat paradoxically, his ability to deal with physical defenders. While Jozy clearly has the ability to dominate defenders physically, just look at the way he outmuscled Sergio Ramos in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal to score the US’s opening goal, he has struggled in the past against more physical opponents, notably during his loan spell at Hull City and his time with Bursaspor in Turkey.
While in the Netherlands he had a physical advantage over most defenders and could use his athleticism to create space for himself, against opponents where he does not have this advantage, or is even physically outmatched, he can often be anonymous. This does not bode well for his career at Sunderland, where he will probably be asked to compete with at least two defenders as a lone striker, with support coming from a midfield that was truly woeful at times last season. This is not a role Altidore has always relished with the national team and it is evident that he plays much better when supported by a second striker such as Charlie Davies, Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan.
Another issue that has largely been ignored is Paolo Di Canio. Love him or loathe him, he is, in a word, mental. Let’s not forget that though Di Canio led Sunderland to safety last season after taking over, it was only by three points, and if had not been for Wigan’s run in the FA cup, things could have been much different. Though Di Canio clearly has the ability to motivate players, it is not any guarantee that he will last the whole season, with him seemingly just as likely to get sacked for a non-football reason as for the team’s performance on the pitch.
Furthermore, this is the same Paolo Di Canio who took his keeper off after just 20 minutes; you could say he is not known for his patience. If Altidore struggles for lack of service will Di Canio really give him a long run of matches with Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham also on the books? It is very unlikely Di Canio will be playing with two out and out strikers, which would leave three players in competition for one spot, and though Altidore may be tried out wide, I do not think this is a position he is at all suited for. Finding yourself on the bench the season before the World Cup is not the ideal position for someone who aspires to lead the line for the US, and with players such as Eddie Johnson having played well for the national team recently, Altidore’s spot may not be so certain if he does not get the crucial playing time.
While it is understandable why Altidore would be attracted to the money and glamor of the Premier League, Sunderland was not the ideal destination for a player at his stage in his career and seems very much a decision taken without a look at the long term. With clubs in Germany and Italy also rumored to be interested in the American’s services at the time, it would seemingly have made more sense for him to go to a club that would have been able to offer some level of midweek football, something Jurgen Klinsmann is very keen on. Playing in a, to be frank, better team than Sunderland would not necessarily have meant less chance of playing time and would certainly have meant better support on the attack.
True, he would still have had to adapt to a different league, but when a club like Lazio, for example, are interested, surely the chance to play with a team already in the Europa league would outweigh the chance to play in a team that barely avoided relegation but has ‘aspirations’ of making the Europa league? Yes, Serie A presents its own set of challenges for a striker, but the quality of the average defender in Italy is sadly not what it once was. Altidore would have been supported by the likes of Hernanes, Antonio Candreza, and Stefano Mauri plus had the chance to work under a well-respected coach in Vladimir Petkovic. True, he would have faced competition from Miroslav Klose, but as fantastic a player as he is, the German striker is now 35-years-old and only played in 36 of Lazio 57 matches in all competitions last season.
I truly hope Jozy Altidore succeeds at Sunderland and, with all respect to the likes of Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, et al, I believe he has the potential, because of his age, to become the first US player to truly make it to the top in Europe. However, this is very much potential at this point, and the idea that because he had two successful seasons with AZ, he is destined for success is erroneous. Altidore still has a significant amount of work to do in order to improve his game and, in an age where strikers are expected to perform a number of different roles at an expert level, it is yet to be seen if he can make the leap. It is no longer enough to be a good poacher, target man, have great pace, technique, or creativity; a top forward has to have the whole package and be able to open up the game by occupying both opposing centre-backs. The next nine months will tell whether Sunderland was the right move for Altidore and if he is able to handle the pressure of expectation and raise his game to the next level.