Where did it all go wrong for Jozy Altidore in the Premier League?
One phrase always comes to mind when soccer enthusiasts discuss Jozy Altidore: physically gifted.
Altidore is a specimen, at first glance seemingly concocted for the use of managers in need of stellar hold-up play – exactly what Sunderland, who often play with a lone forward, require. So where has it all gone wrong for the American striker, who reportedly ? He is now in his second go-around in the Premier League, 43 appearances in, and has just three goals to his name with the Black Cats.
Certainly he is capable of that hold-up play, able to ward off smaller midfielders to allow time for teammates to advance into the attacking half. But he is, after all, a forward, and thus judged on his ability (or lack thereof) to put the ball in the back of the net. And this is where the problems crop up – and where the myth of the quintessential American athlete is levelled out by the technical demands of the global game.
Despite his size, Altidore has never been a classic target man, lacking the necessary prowess in the air. And while he is possessed of impressive speed for a man of his build, he has not developed the kind of technical ability necessary to upset top-level defenders 1v1; a shame, given his rocket of a right foot when given time and space to get a shot off.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Altidore had his best run of club play from 2011 through 2013, as part of a typical Dutch 4-3-3 attack at AZ Alkmaar; surround the man with enough playmakers, and he’s bound to find the net, which he did 39 times in two seasons in all competitions. (There’s also the valid argument that the Eredivise does not have defenders of the physicality of the Premier League – who are more able to deal with Altidore’s gifts.) Altidore has also looked best in the national team under head coach Jürgen Klinsmann when the German has played him off a second forward, whose presence creates enough gaps in the final third for Altidore to exploit, using his size to hold off defenders on crosses into the box. The defenders in question, however, are the kind Altidore sees in CONCACAF competitions and qualifying play: smaller, the kind that a man of Altidore’s physicality can man-handle with relative ease.
Klinsmann, for his part, would seem to be taking the USMNT in a different direction, one that embraces the challenges that being a world soccer power poses. He has brought in players – most prominent among them Julian Green, Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson – who have developed overseas and accordingly look more comfortable with the ball at their feet and intuitively pop up in dangerous areas on the pitch. He has left names like Donovan, Bocanegra and Cherundolo – those grinding, do-or-die, counterpunching American types – out in the cold, at times appearing to drag an entire nation of supporters kicking and screaming into a brave new world. One would be right to wonder if Altidore, who has already been briefly exiled from the national side for lack of confidence, still has a place in that kind of system.
Altidore apologists, of course, have always pointed to his age when confronted with these developmental accusations: the forward was just 18 when he was signed away from New York Red Bulls by La Liga side Villareal for about $10m, the largest fee ever paid for an MLS player, and not even 20 years old during the 2010 World Cup. But after a second World Cup appearance was cut short by a hamstring injury, and with Altidore at best second choice in , the age argument – he’s now 24 – no longer holds water. He has been on the scene long enough to state the obvious: he is what he is.
Confidence is a critical component of any striker’s arsenal, and as with any worth his salt, when Altidore is full of it, he scores in bunches. Perhaps what’s best for the man is to find a best-fit scenario – a move back to the Netherlands, or another league with less emphasis on brutish defending – to recapture his goal-scoring touch. Even without it, he still has a place in the national side; one can always make use of a bruising forward willing to do yeoman’s work. But it looks as if it’s finally time to abandon the notion of Jozy Altidore as the game-changing striker many thought he would become.