Nothing, of course, ever comes down to just one moment, but still you wonder what might have been if the goal Jozy Altidore scored against Arsenal had been allowed to stand. He had done little in Sunderland’s first two games of the season, in the 1-0 defeat to Fulham and the 1-1 draw at Southampton, but then Sunderland as a whole had struggled for creativity and invention in the final third. He scored in the late comeback against Milton Keynes Dons in the Capital One Cup, and in the next league game, at home to Arsenal at the beginning of September, Altidore seemed to have scored to make it 2-2. There was nothing sophisticated in what he did, battling past Bacary Sagna to reach a bouncing ball in the penalty area, but his finish was neat enough. The referee Martin Atkinson, though, had decided that Sagna had fouled him and had already blown for a free-kick to Sunderland.
Perhaps Wojciech Szczesny had heard the whistle and didn’t make quite the effort he might have done, but it didn’t seem that way. Had that goal stood, had Sunderland clung on for a point or even, with momentum, gone on to win the game, it might all have been very different. Perhaps that would have settled him, would have made Alitdore believe that he did, after all, belong in the Premier League; as it was, he has drifted so far out of favor he isn’t even being named on the bench, despite Sunderland’s obvious first choice striker, Steven Fletcher, being out with an ankle injury.
His £6million move from AZ Alkmaar in the summer has been a profound failure, particularly if, as rumored, Sunderland’s then-manager Paolo Di Canio chose to pursue him rather than Romelu Lukaku, who has been superb on loan from Chelsea at Everton this season. The only positive for USA fans looking ahead to the World Cup is that the center forward at least shouldn’t be tired.
There have been positive moments. There was the goal in the 4-3 home defeat to Chelsea, when Sunderland seemed – unexpectedly, inexplicably – to terrify Jose Mourinho’s side from set plays. Away at Fulham in January, Altidore’s square pass to Ki Sung-yueng was a vital part of the breakaway that led to Adam Johnson’s second goal in the 4-1 win. He even won the penalty that rounded off that victory, mesmerizing Philippe Senderos with some of the slowest stepovers ever seen before being whacked in the thigh and being flipped hilariously into the air. He was excellent in the 3-0 derby win at Newcastle in February, holding the ball up astutely, although even then he fluffed his shot having been set clean through by a defensive error.
Gradually, there’s been a sense of the Sunderland current manager Gus Poyet losing faith in Altidore. When Sunderland lost 4-1 at Arsenal three weeks after the victory at St James’ Park, he was so bad he was taken off at half-time. Poyet noted afterwards that certain players had played their way out of the following weekâs Capital One Cup final. Altidore didn’t even make the bench at Wembley.
March represented the end. Altidore came on for the injured Fletcher at half-time against Crystal Palace but, aside from one turn and shot that forced a good save from Julian Speroni, he did little, rapidly seeming to become discouraged. He was awful in an awful performance in 2-0 defeat at Norwich and missed a sitter that would have earned a draw at Liverpool, having battled gamely as an isolated front man. For the three vital games against West Ham, Tottenham and Everton, Altidore hasnât been in the 18. Poyet seems to have lost faith entirely.
Altidore, in fact, seems to have lost faith in himself. His confidence, fairly clearly, is shot. Heâll start reasonably well, then make a couple of mistakes after which his head almost visibly goes down. So wayward, so tentative is his finishing that, even taking into account the familiar Eredivisie inflation, it’s hard to believe he scored 38 league goals in two seasons at AZ.
For all his bulk, Altidore is a player who seems oddly weak, and repeatedly ends up using his arms in challenges. As a result he commits a large number of fouls: 1.7 per game, according to Whoscored.com, the eighth highest figure of any player in the Premier League and the highest for any forward other than Christian Benteke. The difference there is that Benteke wins 8.8 aerial duels per game: his fouls at least bring a reward. Altidore wins only 2.5 per game.
The mitigation is that this has been a pretty terrible season for everybody at Sunderland. Only Ki, Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson have emerged with much credit. Altidore isn’t the only failure and, given how little impact Emanuele Giaccherini has made, probably isn’t even the biggest failure. But after disappointing stints at both Hull and Sunderland - two league goals in total in 35 starts over two seasons, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that it’s simply a level too high for him.