Paolo Di Canio is out at Sunderland. Fans on Wearside are doing the appropriate gnashing of teeth as their fascist dictator-in-miniature heads to a lower division somewhere to learn the nuance of tactical discipline and faithful drilling. Another year, another blown-up Premier League project.
Here, the conversation has inevitably turned to Jozy Altidore, who now appears dangerously close to a reprise of his Hull City situation from 2009. Far from the warm glow of AZ, he now appears to be the tip of the spear for a team tactically adrift while they blindly bash their way forward through overgrown thickets. Like working your way back up the grain of the jetwash of a 747.
When you pick through Jozy’s few appearances in the red stripes this year, the returns aren’t particularly flattering. This has less to do with Jozy’s form (which is clearly still benefitting from the residual impact of his tactical renaissance in the Netherlands) and more to do with his general directives. He’s rarely asked to be more than a big body, though he does his best to distribute in the absence of much interplay. So, importantly, it should be said that while Sunderland is easy prey, it’s far too early to take the chisel to his individual form.
Indeed, Jozy had a legitimate goal wiped off against Arsenal and had his dangerous moments as a sub in Sunderland’s embarrassing 3-0 loss to West Brom last weekend. But the tactical tide has been working against Jozy’s maturation since he arrived in Sunderland, which we’ll take a look at today.
Sunderland’s overall attacking strategy in its first five games under Di Canio in 2013 was a jumbled mess, the tactical equivalent of a shoulder shrug and an index finger pointed blindly forward. In games where they owned possession they failed to capitalize, and in games where they did not, they lost all semblance of rigidity and simply bashed the ball forward. Unfortunately for Jozy, this digs the dagger directly into the fleshy part of his ability to get meaningful touches. Because there haven’t been many to spread around.
The Black Cats out-worked Fulham in their first game of the season and still lost 1-0, which seemed to break Di Canio’s resolve. Sunderland won the possession battle 57-43 and had 149 passes in the attacking third to just 65 for Fulham. But they were aimless and wayward as Di Canio bizarrely blitzed nearly his entire complement of midfielders forward. So even though Sunderland bossed possession, those moments weren’t particularly valuable and were rarely dangerous.
As you can see with Jozy’s distribution map below, he too often was forced to prod possession at the edge of the attacking third and was pushed out wide by Sunderland’s ineptitude in the middle of the field.
During Jozy’s nearly two-year-long period in the goal desert with the USMNT, this was his troubling MO, so it’s not particularly good to see him lapse back into this pattern, fleeting as it may be. He’d swing unhinged from touchline to touchline in an effort to throw the jumper cables onto his flagging distribution team. When that failed (as it inevitably did), Jozy found himself yards outside the box when the attacking movement reached critical mass. He was often simply not where he needed to be.
Sunderland’s second game against Southampton was shambolic tactically, saved only by a (somewhat lucky) header by mini mite Giaccherini in the second minute to rescue an eventual 1-1 draw. Otherwise, Southampton utterly unraveled Sunderland’s attempts to do much of anything. While the Saints passed ribbons around their confused opponents, Sunderland simply bombed passes toward the corner flags and completely cut out the center of the field. Sunderland completed an anemic 167 passes and kept the ball 35 percent of the time.
Jozy interjected where he could by holding the ball up and making runs, but as the somewhat embarrassing influence map shows, his meager footprint was perhaps one of the team’s lone flickering lights dancing in the darkness.
And so it’s gone. Arsenal, Crystal Palace and West Brom losses went similarly. Early, Di Canio attempted to stick Jozy up top by himself and run midfielder Sessengnon up behind him, but that created miles of space in the midfield that was easily exploitable. Again, Di Canio threw out the idea of organized defending in favor of a press far too high upfield and a wanton disregard for measured passing. Put together, those two foibles are a death sentence.
With Sessegnon gone to West Brom (he showed Di Canio a glimpse of what he could do when deployed correctly when he scored in the Brummies’ 3-0 win over Sunderland last weekend) Di Canio switched to a 4-4-2 with Steven Fletcher pairing with Jozy and, finally, Fabio Borini up top. This too was a spectacular failure, as the central midfield of Ki and Gardner was completely overrun.
If there is good news here, it is that Di Canio’s feckless tactical blundering is no longer a worry, and Sunderland is almost sure to add some much-need iron to its defending. The issue now becomes whether Jozy can do two things; keep his name in the good graces of a coach that presumably had little to do with his signing, and find a place in Kevin Ball’s setup.
Ball, it should be said, has only had one brief stint as a head man, ironically in the same seat he’s in now. He was Sunderland’s caretaker in 2006 after Mick McCarthy was sacked and lost seven of his 10 games in charge. His option was, obviously, not extended, and he walked back down the steps to the club’s academy. It’s an incredibly small sample size, and it’s hard to borrow from it, but Ball’s reputation as a bruising center back and central defensive midfielder (his nickname? ‘The Hatchet’) does not bode well for a possession-oriented Sunderland. And it’s hard to see this adding much to Jozy’s oeuvre though, again, that’s to be determined over the next seven months.
How this all effects Jozy’s national team situation is still crystalizing. Jozy’s recent run of form with the USMNT is without precedent, and it’s obvious his soaring tenure with AZ did much to improve his positional awareness and goal-scoring prowess. This is unlike his Hull situation in a couple ways, none more important than that he has a better foundation now from which to build. He cannot be torn down to the studs as he was during his last Premiership tenure. Everything from his close-range finishing to his ability to stay tethered to the goalmouth is better now. Which is not to say that it cannot regress under the wrong auspices.
Still, it has to be acknowledged that this is not ideal, and it’s not clear that a solution is rising above the horizon. As we’re beginning to understand with MLS’ rise in prominence, this will continue to stoke the idea that a step up in league competition isn’t a catch-all solution. Acknowledging hindsight to be what it is, we can freely admit that he might have stayed at AZ all along.