In what may turn out to be the most important transfer involving an American player in years, Jozy Altidore is moving from AZ to Sunderland. Early returns from US fans are mixed, and there is reason to be both excited and worried. But, as Sunderland underwent massive change last season when Martin O'Neill was sacked and Paolo di Canio was brought in, the prospect of Altidore moving Wearside became more interesting. Even if you're one of the skeptics, this move is a fascinating one for both Altidore and Sunderland.
When Di Canio arrived at the Stadium of Light, the approach for Sunderland became more pragmatic, free-flowing, as opposed to Martin O'Neill's style. Jozy Altidore would certainly not have fit in the latter, but how does he fit in Di Canio's system? Kristan Heneage of ESPNFC, who covers Sunderland, provided some clarity:
"Expect to see him line up in a 4-4-2 formation alongside Steven Fletcher and be given more of the donkey work (hard and boring work). The idea is that they compliment each other and Fletcher's poaching is supplemented by Jozy's hard graft and channel running."
While Altidore was never playing in a 4-4-2 with AZ, he did play with other forwards up top, despite being used as a lone forward in Jurgen Klinsmann's preferred 4-2-3-1. Steven Fletcher as a poacher should complement Altidore in the same way Clint Dempsey does for the national team (although Dempsey is better). The major worry for US fans is whether Sunderland have the midfield to give him the necessary service, and Heneage believes they do.
"(Sunderland) do have the midfielders to be creative. Sessegnon and Johnson will be his main supply lines and good ones at that."
While Adam Johnson did struggle at points last year, he can be a decent passer of the ball, along with the more technical of the two in Stephane Sessegnon. Sebastian Larsson can also create service if needed. On the overall approach for Sunderland under Di Canio, Heneage's response will seem familiar to US National team supporters.
"Overall, they'll be quick transition, with a direct (not long) approach. Ball would be put out wide and then work its way into the box by crossing or through balls. Jozy could thrive in it."
Di Canio's system seems remarkably similar to the one Jurgen Klinsmann runs, aside from the 2 strikers, doesn't it? So long as the midfield and the wingers are able to cross (it helps that Larsson is one of the best dead ball crossers in the Premier League), Altidore should be able to do quite well if it's something he's somewhat familiar with.
Many US fans are colored with fear because of his failures with Hull City in 2009-10, and believe his style is not suited for the English game as a result. While that was a bad season for him, he was 3 years younger and that Hull team was a bit of a trainwreck, and no young striker could have succeeded in that situation. His maturity level has improved dramatically, and dealing with the adversity with Klinsmann that he's dealt with will certainly help him with the pressures of the Premier League.
Or maybe the fear from fans comes from just the team he's playing on? What if he went to another team, such as Newcastle? Heneage also covers Newcastle, and is a supporter of theirs, so what would he think? He didn't give the most ringing endorsement of Alan Pardew and company.
(Newcastle's midfield) is perhaps nicer looking in terms of technical quality, but the derby (3-0 Sunderland over Newcastle at St. James Park last April), didn't exactly show that. It would have been good for Jozy to try Newcastle but then they've been kicking and rushing for most of last season.
In short: while it may have looked nicer on paper to go to Newcastle, Alan Pardew's style doesn't really make it the best situation. Couple that with the instability in the dugout and boardroom with Joe Kinnear as the new director of football, it's probably better for Altidore to become a Mackem than a Geordie at this point.
This move is an important one for Altidore as he is still 23 and coming into his own as the featured target for the US national team. While some of the fears about him in the Premier League may be somewhat founded, on closer look he's set up for more success than first glances would lead you to believe.
He's not scoring 31 goals for Sunderland this season, but 15 would be nice. And based on the evidence, it's probably not that far of a stretch to see that happening.