"The fact you always have to go in every week saying, ‘I have to do something spectacular to stay in the team’ is just how it is in Europe and I think that’s been great for me."
That’s Alkmaar Zaanstreek striker Jozy Altidore, in June 2012, explaining what motivates a successful centre forward in Europe. He’d just ended the 2011/12 Eredivisie with 20 goals in all competitions and will score another 31 in the 2012/13 season. His 51st and final goal, come May 2013, will win the KNVB Cup. Then the American, in blazing form, will seek a new challenge at Sunderland AFC.
If only he knew.
The striker had been a marketable player once before, in January 2006 when Josmer Volmy Altidore was selected by New York Red Bulls (then NY/NJ MetroStars) in the MLS SuperDraft. Upon graduating from the IMG Soccer Academy in September, the U16 forward produced a meritorious goal haul into 2007. It earned him favour in the FIFA U20 World Cup in June and a senior debut for the USA national squad by November.
In June 2008, Major League Soccer agreed a €5.7m fee with Villarreal CF for the prolific eighteen-year old, and would make Altidore the first American international to score in La Liga, against Athletic Bilbao. To support his promising development, manager Manuel Pellegrini loaned Altidore to Xerez Club Deportivo in the Segunda División in February 2009. Unfortunately, due to injury, he never played for the Xerecistas.
Altidore would be loaned twice between 2009 and 2011. In the 09/10 season he was shipped to the Premier League for Phil Brown’s Hull City; scoring twice in 31 appearances against Manchester City and Southend United before being dismissed for violent conduct in his final match. Sunderland was involved. After participating in their 10/11 Europa League campaign, Villarreal CF loaned Altidore to Spor Toto Süper Lig champions Bursaspor in January 2011. The American’s subsiding goal ratio continued in Turkey with 1 goal from 12 games, against Antalyaspor Kulübü in April at the Bursa Atatürk Stadium.
By summer 2011, dirt sheets swarmed over Altidore’s declining club form. His high expectations set at New York Red Bulls were a stark contrast to his 3 year struggle in Europe. At only 21-years old, Altidore admitted publicly that his European record – 6 goals from 64 games – was unbecoming of a striker now outgrowing his "potential" tag. He would later explain how, with vigilant deliberation, only one club could exploit his strengths and recapture his strikers’ instincts: AZ Alkmaar.
And so, Altidore joined AZ in July 2011 for €1.3m. His Head Coach, Gertjan Verbeek, soon lambasted Altidore’s poor progress in training but Altidore, in turn, praised his trainers’ challenging, ‘straight-shooter’ approach. It was the motivation he needed. What followed was 23 months of uncontaminated carnage: 39 Eredivisie goals, 8 KNVB Beker goals, 4 Europa League goals; 12 braces, 3 hat-tricks, 11 assists. Only Sanharib Malki and Wilfried Bony scored more Eredivisie goals in the same period.
So when Sunderland signed Altidore for £8.5m in the July 2013 De Fanti cornucopia, his supporters waited for this one-man goal torrent to rage over Wearside. It took only one month for his first goal, against MK Dons in the Capital One Cup 3rd Round. Then it took four months for his second goal, against Chelsea in the Premier League. Finally, it took another nine months for his third goal, against Stoke City in the Capital One Cup 3rd round of this 2014/15 season.
That’s it. 3 goals. 52 appearances. There’s no defence – it’s a brutal statistic. It’s proven Altidore’s detractors correct, that he would be as abominable for Sunderland in the Premier League as he was for Hull City five years ago. When a striker’s legacy is dependant on his goal ratio, he cannot expect clemency from supporters with a goal tally that crap. Not after 18 months, for a striker who has played professionally for a decade.
His apologists can argue however that Altidore brought more than a substandard goal count. He was, occasionally, a subtle influence during Sunderland’s nauseous 13/14 season. It was his four assists in the League Cup 2nd, 3rd and Quarter Final Rounds that contributed to the club’s first cup final in 22 years. It was his assist that downed Newcastle United in the 2:1 Wear-Tyne derby, and it was a foul on Altidore that brought about Chelsea’s first home loss in the Premier League under José Mourinho.
Others may suspect the American’s ‘shots on target’ ratio to be his deficiency. Yet, in 13/14, Altidore’s 63% shot accuracy bettered Wickham (56%), Borini (50%), Fletcher (36%), and even Luis Suárez and Sergio Agüero. He leads the shot accuracy ratio this season too. However, shot quantity was a shortcoming; the American ranking 8th for total shots at Sunderland last season, less than five midfielders and Phil Bardsley. Connor Wickham, who played 900 minutes less than Altidore, only fired 3 fewer. As we know, when those rare, unmarked chances were created for Jozy, he was a botch fiasco.
Theories and can be made for how Altidore could be so calamitous for Sunderland, yet be a leading European goal-scorer the season prior. Some may look to Gus Poyet’s striker-isolating tactical formation. At New York Red Bulls and AZ Alkmaar – the American’s most successful tenures – Altidore played close to a technically-sound attacking playmakers (Clint Mathis, Adam Maher). No other club he played for used attacking midfielders regularly, favouring defensive formations.
Gus Poyet did strive to utilise Altidore’s known strengths as a holding forward. Gertjan Verbeek used it in the Eredivisie as does Jürgen Klinsmann now (to great success) for the USA national team. It’s a strong, counter-attacking component in football, allowing fast wingers to run beyond Altidore and load up an assist for him.
It’s worth noting that a quarter of the strikers’ goals in the Eredivisie and MLS were headers from in-swinging crosses or set-pieces. His only goal for Bursaspor was also a header. Though his link-up play with wingers Roy Beerens and Maaeten Martens were plentiful at Alkmaar, we only saw rare moments of it, mainly with Fabio Borini, and in a one-off with Duncan Watmore.
These facts could only explain Altidore’s form for Sunderland, but cannot excuse it. As a lone striker he has been outrageous, targeting shots wildly between keeper gloves and Chaplins Pub. He’s been a rare forward with more assists than goals; spawning a near cult-esque support for him based on his industrious go-getting, if not for the predatory image he was presented with.
Unfortunately, after 500 minutes of game time this season – and one goal – it looks like Altidore’s legacy at Sunderland ends on an ugly sigh. The last two calendar years have been a glorious ‘Age of Altidore’ for his USA national team, but for Sunderland it represents a striker who was all and only endeavour.
In his words; by doing something spectacular to stay in the team – just how it is in Europe – Sunderland could have been great for him.