A Martin Atkinson breath and about 12 inches were all that kept Jozy Altidore from a brace against Arsenal Saturday afternoon in Sunderland's 3-1 loss.
Paolo Di Canio's decision to play a second out-and-out forward alongside Altidore, in Steven Fletcher, paid dividends, though mostly in the second half. By then, the Black Cats were chasing the game and Arsenal thoroughly took advantage despite Altidore clearly enjoying the most open game of his Sunderland career.
In the 70th minute, Bacary Sagna wrapped both hands around Attidore's shoulders atop the left side of the 18-yard box, where the striker was slipping in toward goal. Altidore barreled through the illegal challenge, reached the ball just above the end line and rolled it past Wojciech Szczesny with his right foot.
The Stadium of Light crowd erupted at the 2-2 equalizer and what appeared to be Altidore's first Premier League goal.
One problem: The first official, Atkinson had already whistled for a foul outside the box. Craig Gardner curled the ensuing free kick high and wide and Aaron Ramsey scored five minutes later to make it 3-1 Arsenal.
Altidore again nearly clawed one back in the 83rd minute, nodding an Adam Johnson corner kick from the right side just a foot wide of the inside of the far post. Szczesny was soundly beaten, and so was Sunderland.
As Sunderland fought back in the second half, much of the secondary buildup play flowed through Altidore, who routinely dinked balls back to charging midfielders in the center of the pitch, and later in the channels.
He and Fletcher played a little too similarly at first, but together, they gradually opened up the game. And while the result was Sunderland's best attacking play this season, it also showed that what's best for Altidore probably isn't best for his team against top-notch competition as Arsenal wreaked havoc on counterattacks.
There's a balance to be found between the first half play, when Altidore had next to no service and Arsenal had three-quarters of possession and the wide-open but ultimately suicidal play he looked so at home in during the second half.
In the mean time, Altidore was Sunderland's most consistent facilitator and scoring threat as his back-to-goal play troubled Arsenal any time he could receive the ball. Only a few heavy-footed offsides further dampened his display.
Best look: He finished it. It just didn't count.
Most impressive: Aside from giving Sagna the rag doll treatment, in the 57th minute, Altidore flicked a ball over his head to Fletcher in stride. The attack died as Fletcher had nowhere to go, surrounded by three defenders, but the play showed Altidore's willing if not intuitively able to connect with his teammates.
-Altidore and Wickham showed off a little chemistry in the last 15 minutes as each figured out that one would have to pull wide to allow the other to run through center of the defense. It worked best in the 83rd minute when Altidore pulled up deep on the right flank and picked out Wickham for header from 10 yards out that sailed over.
-In the first half, Altidore's legs looked a little dead, but he warmed up with the game.
-Sunderland largely defended in a wall of eight men behind the ball in a sloppy 6-2-2, especially in the first half, electing to leave Fletcher and Altidore up top to fight for clearances. It only kind of worked as Arsenal took a 1-0 lead and several spurned chances into the break.
-When Altidore did track back it was cleverly and crucially, stripping Mesut Özil twice. Altidore otherwise did a good job balancing the need to clog passing lanes and keep Arsenal's back line honest. Late in the second half he played as a point defender of sorts while Sunderland bunkered in for the halftime whistle.
Final Stats (team total)
Shots: 2 (18); Shots on goal 1 (3); Fouls drawn 3 (11)
It's coming together, but Di Canio has to sort out the midfield behind Altidore for the team's attack to blossom. Ki Sung-Yeung can't be the lynchpin against true quality opposition, but Gardner and Adam Johnson are encouraging focal points for the possibility of Altidore getting consistent service. Altidore's still doing what he needs to in terms of winning first and second balls, drawing defensive bodies and fouls.
Player rating: 7
- Jacob Klinger