The news last week that Jozy Altidore was considering his future at Sunderland hardly came as a surprise. Sunderland, you suspect, has been already considering his future for some time, and if it had managed to land Fabio Borini after an exhaustive pursuit this summer, the U.S. striker may already have departed.
“I thought I’ve done everything I could this season to come in as fit as possible with the injury and try to make an impact when I’ve played,” Altidore told reporters prior to the USA's friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras. “I want to be part of the national team. Jurgen [Klinsmann] makes his message very clear, nobody is different, so if it doesn’t turn around then in January I’ll be looking to start elsewhere and make sure that I’m in his plans.”
Altidore, who scored in the USA's 1-1 draw vs. Honduras on Tuesday, wants and needs games, and nobody, realistically, could begrudge him that. Unless something changes dramatically, he’s not going to get them at Sunderland. The only consolation is that he’s not quite so far down the pecking order as Danny Graham, the striker Sunderland signed from Swansea City in January 2012 who started 11 games for the club, went out on loan to Hull and Middlesbrough last season, and now haunts the training ground. His only playing time this season consists of two minutes off the bench at the end of the Capital One Cup defeat to Stoke City.
Altidore, who turns 25 in three weeks, has at least made four substitute appearances in the league and he started the Capital One Cup tie, even scoring the opening goal. But he is very clearly a third choice behind Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham, which means opportunities are going to be limited in a system that tends only to use one striker. Perhaps Emanuele Giaccherini’s injury, which might lead to Wickham being deployed on the flank, will create opportunities for Altidore, but the message is pretty clear: Gus Poyet doesn’t rate him.
In a sense he was unfortunate. It’s been suggested that Sunderland had a deal agreed in principle last summer to sign Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea, only for Paolo Di Canio to insist that he wanted Altidore. So the Belgian went on loan to Everton and scored 15 league goals, while Altidore joined Sunderland only to find Di Canio sacked five games into the season.
January will, necessarily, bring changes. Wickham’s contract expires next summer and, unless he signs a new deal, he will almost certainly be offloaded so that he doesn’t leave, as Jack Colback and Phil Bardsley did last summer, on a free transfer at the end of the season. That could mean Altidore becoming second choice behind Fletcher or, more likely, it could mean him being sold to raise funds to sign another forward.
The worst thing for Altidore, perhaps, is the resignation with which he tends to be treated: he’s broadly become a joke. When he scored against Stoke, Twitter was alive with sightings of eclipses, owls killing falcons, horses turning and eating themselves and other portends of the apocalypse.
When he comes off the bench, the chant goes up, “Jozy scores, we’re on the pitch,” as fans warn stewards that, should the unthinkable happen, they wouldn’t be able to contain themselves. Of course that means that if he were suddenly to score half a dozen goals in quick succession, he would be assured cult status. His work rate and effort are generally respected; the perception is that he just isn’t that good.
There’s been nothing in his season and a bit at the club, though, to suggest that a scoring binge is at all likely. He may have scored 50 goals all competitions in two seasons at AZ, but there are plenty of precedents – Mateja Kezman, Afonso Alves, Dirk Kuyt – to demonstrate that goals in the Eredivisie don’t necessarily translate into goals in the Premier League.
There have been good moments. Altidore seems to play well against Chelsea, scoring in the 4-3 home league defeat last season with a sharp swivel and finish, and being fouled for the penalty that brought the winner in the unexpected 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge. He was very good in the 3-0 win away to Newcastle United last season, even if he did, with trademark clumsiness, waste a 1-on-1 by getting the ball caught under his feet.
His interchange with Ki Sung-Yeung at Fulham last season in the build-up to Adam Johnson’s second goal was excellent. His slow-motion step-over before being flipped in the air by Philippe Senderos to win a penalty in that game was hilarious. But then there were the desperate misses against Cardiff and Liverpool, the days when his first touch deserted him, his absolute inability to use his physical bulk to win headers without committing fouls.
He committed 1.7 fouls per game last season according to Whoscored.com, the sixth-highest figure of any player in the Premier League and the highest for any forward other than Christian Benteke. But Benteke also won 8.8 aerial duels per game: his fouls at least brought a reward; Altidore won only 2.4 per game. Perhaps if his goal against Arsenal in the second home game of last season had been allowed to stand, rather than being called back for a foul on the striker, things might have been different.
He seems to be a player whose form is profoundly subject to swings if confidence, and that might have given him the requisite self-belief. As it is, Altidore seems trapped in a cycle of poor form, each bad touch, each miss, only eroding his confidence further. A separation from Sunderland would probably be mutually beneficial.