7913_isi_altidorejozy_usmntjd061813032 John Dorton/isiphotos.com
Americans Abroad

Talking Tactics: Jozy Could Struggle at Sunderland

Jozy Altidore’s transfer from AZ Alkmaar to Sunderland represents a step up in competition, but it could also result in isolation, and frustration, for the 23-year-old American forward.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
July 10, 2013
12:41 PM
AFTER A WILDLY SUCCESSFUL two years with the Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar, Jozy Altidore will once again try his luck in the English Premier League following his July transfer to Sunderland.

Altidore has grown as a person and a player since struggling at Hull City four years ago, and he will be eager to show English fans just how far he has come. However, Sunderland’s style of play may not suit the 23-year-old New Jersey native, which could complicate this otherwise-promising switch.

As most U.S. fans know, Altidore thrives on service in the box. He is not a true target striker, he is not particularly fast, and he is not the most technically gifted forward—at least not yet. But he is a lethal finisher when he receives the ball in dangerous positions.

Altidore demonstrated as much by scoring four goals in his last four games with the U.S. national team—all from passes received inside the area. He has scored dozens of similar goals for AZ over the past two seasons as well. But when left isolated up front with little support—as he was for much of his lengthy international scoring drought and during his time at Hull City—Altidore has proven to be rather ordinary.

This is where Sunderland’s system and Altidore’s strengths may be at odds. Among EPL teams, Sunderland played the second-fewest passes in the final third last season, suggesting that it 1) relies too heavily on long balls to start attacks and 2) struggles to retain possession in the attacking zone. Unsurprisingly, the Black Cats struggled mightily to create chances as well, creating a league-worst (in both categories) 7.34 chances per game and 0.74 clear-cut chances per game.

The lack of clear-cut chances is particularly worrying for Altidore, as these generally correspond with passes that lead to open shots in and around the middle of the box—Altidore’s forte. Of course, all strikers enjoy these types of chances. But Altidore has demonstrated an uncanny knack for finishing them off, and considering his struggles farther away from goal, they are uniquely important to his success.

Here are the chances created charts from Sunderland’s final five games. The blunt ends of the lines indicate the position from where the ball was played, while the arrowed ends indicate where the ball was received. Arrows that are particularly far from goal are the result of either a breakaway or lengthy solo run into a shooting position from the player who received the pass.

Sunderland did manage to get the win against Tim Howard and Everton, but it created a paltry four chances and only scored thanks to Leighton Baines’ awful giveaway and a fine solo goal from Stephane Sessegnon.

Against Aston Villa’s porous back four—the third-worst unit in the league—Sunderland did very little to threaten Brad Guzan’s goal. The Black Cats managed to create just three chances from open play inside the Villa box. The result, a blowout loss to a mediocre Aston Villa team.

The following week against Stoke City, Sunderland turned in an abject attacking display, which resulted in zero chances created in the box. The squad did manage to score on a corner from a Stoke defensive error, but it was still a very poor performance.

In another winnable home game, Sunderland yet again created little of note in the box, this time only finding the net via a lucky deflection off a hopeful Phil Bardsley shot from the edge of the area. Against the fifth worst away defense in the league, it was an unconvincing showing.

Sunderland’s final-day showing at White Hart Lane was actually its best of the bunch. The visitors were able to create some chances on the counter as a desperate Spurs side pushed forward in pursuit of the goal they needed to stay in Champions League contention. Despite this, Sunderland’s attacking performance left much to be desired against an opponent that was there for the taking.

Each of these charts for Sunderland features a markedly high percent of chances that are created 25+ yards from goal. This speaks to the club’s inability to break down opposing defenses and its subsequent reliance on long shots. Midfielders Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon, Sebastian Larsson, and Craig Gardner are all particularly adept (and willing) long-range shooters, but only Johnson could be characterized as an above-average passer.

This means that the logical conclusion to many of Sunderland’s limited forays forward is the long shot. As a result, Sunderland’s strikers are often bypassed in favor of hopeful attempts from distance. It’s a wonderful strategy to watch when it’s working, such as in this shocking demolition of local rivals Newcastle.

But the strategy rarely works, which is part of the reason Sunderland only scored 41 goals in 38 games last season.

Worse, this approach is particularly ill-suited for Altidore, who may become frustrated as he watches his teammates launch ambitious long shots instead of playing the ball into his feet.

At AZ, Altidore benefitted from the unselfish, creative play of Adam Maher and Roy Beerens. And for the U.S. he has enjoyed the service of Graham Zusi, Fabian Johnson, and Clint Dempsey (who doesn’t get enough credit for his creative skills). Such gifted passers are in short supply at Sunderland, and only Adam Johnson managed more than three league assists last season.

For a contrast to Sunderland’s long shot heavy approach—and to see charts that more closely resemble what Altidore has become accustomed to with AZ and the U.S. in recent games—consider the chance creation data from the Black Cats’ final two opponents.

Note the concentration of chances either in or just outside the box. Newly promoted Southampton, on the road no less, created more chances than Sunderland did, and with eight out of nine inside the box.

Tottenham’s chart is even better suited for Altidore.

Even with the sensational long-range shooting ability of Gareth Bale—who did ultimately score his customary stunning winner from 25 yards—Spurs still played ball after ball into and around the box, waiting for a clinical striker to finish off the chances. This is the type of system in which Altidore would almost inevitably thrive, but it’s unlikely that Sunderland will provide it.

Of course, this is by no means a stone cold assertion that Altidore will struggle next year. He is undoubtedly in the form of his life, and he is fully capable of reaching double-digits in goals for Sunderland regardless of its style of play.

Also, the expensive purchase of Altidore may signal a shift in intent for the Black Cats. The team would not be the first Premier League outfit to become much more attack-minded with the addition of a prolific striker. The 2012-13 versions of Swansea and West Brom come to mind as recent examples of this tactical adjustment, and Sunderland could be planning on a similar shift in style with the addition of Altidore.

Still, on paper this is not the perfect switch for Altidore. Only time will tell if Sunderland fans will see a player who more closely resembles the free-scoring Altidore of AZ Alkmaar or the frustrated Altidore of Hull City.

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