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In Defence Of Jozy Altidore

I've been one Jozy Altidore's harshest critics this season, but despite the paucity of goals, there is plenty to be positive about where the American international is concerned.

Chris Brunskill

If Gus Poyet continues to employ the system that has seen Sunderland defeat Southampton and Manchester City in successive home games then it leaves space for just one striker in his side. Naturally, Steven Fletcher would seem to be the obvious first choice given his goal scoring record for the club. However, Jozy Altidore has shown enough without scoring in the Premier League - he has scored in the League Cup, for what it's worth - to suggest he has a vital part to play, be it from the start or coming off the bench.

Sunderland supporters - or the sixteen thousand or so who turned out - caught their first glimpse of the much feted Poyet "philosophy" in last week's defeat of a second string Southampton side in the League Cup. Although it was an undoubtedly weakened Saints side, Pochettino had them set up to play in the same fashion as his first choice XI and encouragingly, Sunderland outplayed them for large parts of the match going on to deservedly win the game. The crucial second goal came as a direct result of some excellent build up, rounded off by an exceptionally unselfish assist from Altidore, exemplifying everything that is good about Poyet's tactical approach and Altidore's own game.

The American not only started, he played the full 90 minutes, rounding off a decent night's work with the pass for Larsson's goal. As he manoeuvred himself into position on the edge of the box, his desire to take the shot on and score was obvious. Strikers are generally judged on their goal scoring record and it's easy to see why he would have loved to end his night with one given his recent travails on that front, but in spite of this he made the right decision to lay the ball off. It was typical of his play throughout the evening and indeed his Sunderland career so far.

Since signing for the Black Cats he has been left to graft endlessly up front, sacrificing himself for the good of the team, generally toiling away thanklessly against defenders, all the while struggling to compete for aimless punts forward, often lobbed high above his head. What has become clear is that - as is often the case - size can be deceptive. Yes Altidore is big, but that does not mean he is a throwback target man in the mould of Andy Carroll.

When Altidore is given the ball into his feet or chest, he has shown himself to be more than capable of trapping it, and as typified by his League Cup assist, attempting to bring a teammate into play. Another of his strengths and thus far his most underused one is his ability to turn and run in behind defences with not just pace but power too. To call him a tank would be to do him a disservice; he's much quicker than that. Indeed, he is more like a train, slow over the first few yards perhaps, but unstoppable once he gets moving. This appears to be his most likely route to goal but his teammates need to supply him with the right service if we are to see more of this side of his game.

That is not to say he is perfect. For every glimpse of quality and every moment where he shows evidence of his talent there are also entire games where his frustration gets the better of him. He drifts out of matches, wanders offside a little too often and gives away needless free kicks by misusing his physique when tussling with defenders. In the recent loss away to Hull, Altidore put in a performance very much in keeping with the negative side of his game. In this instance, Poyet used him in combination with Steven Fletcher, just as he had done in the previous week's victory over Newcastle United.

During the derby, I felt Altidore should have been substituted early in the second half as I watched from the stands. When I viewed the extended highlights the following day, Sky Sports' decision to give him man of the match award gradually became less perplexing. When I reassessed his performance as many others I have spoken to had also done, I recognised a side to his game that I had overlooked during the tension and anxiety of the match itself. He worked tirelessly to disrupt the Mags' defence and there were promising signs of a growing understanding between himself and Fletcher.

In some ways it was easy to see why Poyet persisted with the double act at Hull, but as has often been the case with Sunderland in recent years, the entire team, never mind the strike partnership, simply failed to deliver. That is not to say Poyet can never use Fletcher and Altidore in tandem again, but if he does so he must tailor the team to get the best out of them, whilst also working to protect what has been a fragile defence for the most part this season.

The chances of a front two resurfacing have reduced now that Poyet has begun to introduce the style of play that won him so many plaudits at Brighton. If they are to be paired it is likely to be in a scenario where Sunderland are chasing the game and one is brought off the bench to support the other.

Despite a decent performance against Southampton, there were changes from that side to the one that lined up against Manchester City. One of them, rather unsurprisingly, was the inclusion of Fletcher in place of Altidore. Although Altidore was heavily involved during the cup victory, this is a Sunderland side that lacks goals and it is one thing that Fletcher guarantees on a more consistent basis. There was an obvious logic to the change; chances were always likely to be at a premium against a side littered with world class talent and if any opportunities were to present themselves to a lone striker, the safe money would be on Fletcher to bury at least one of them.

As it was Fletcher only had one chance during his time on the pitch and he put it wide. As the game entered the final third he began to labour; with Manchester City pressing forward he cut an increasingly isolated figure up front, left alone to chase down clearances. It took another 10 minutes before Poyet decided to withdraw him and bring on Altidore in his place. Sunderland now had energy and power in abundance to harry the City defence whenever the ball was played clear.

In this respect, Altidore is a very handy tool to have. On another day Poyet may have played him from the start, looking to employ his physical attributes as a means to wear down the opposition defence through sheer persistence, before introducing Fletcher to take advantage of the gaps left by those tiring defenders.

In an ideal world, both would play together, Altidore taking defenders away from Fletcher and in doing so generating space for him to move into. For too long now though, Sunderland managers have tried to create systems to favour certain players or to shoehorn other players into the side, often resulting in a tactical shambles. Poyet's Brighton had an identity and if he continues to implement it here, there will simply be no room for both strikers in the side.

Others will have to adapt too; Giaccherini for example, who has looked at his best playing just off a front man, but to harness his talent for the good of the team he is likely to be used in a wide support striker role or as an orthodox right or left sided midfielder. What is frustrating is that these two talented players, signed for significant transfer fees, are probably not ideally suited to the system Poyet has introduced. This is an argument for another day perhaps, but the £12 million or so paid for them would surely have been better spent strengthening significantly weaker parts of the squad.

As things are, Poyet has what he has until January at least and while Altidore may well have to adapt to a place on the bench, having him there certainly does the team's chances no harm. The potential is there for him to come on against tired defences, desperate to prove a point and that in itself is something to be excited about. Football is a squad game after all and Altidore's presence in Sunderland's makes it stronger in the striker department than it has been for some time. Whether he scores regularly or not, he's certainly handy to have around.

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