Jozy Altidore checked back within 45 yards of his own goal in the 88th minute, took a pass on the turn, slipped and fell. An ill-fated Sunderland counterattack scrambled downfield without him, failing to find an equalizer.
Altidore had to work as hard any player in the game just to touch the ball on a day where Sunderland blanketed the Stadium of Light pitch, seemingly relieved from Paolo Di Canio's firing. Playing as a lone striker atop a 4-2-3-1, Altidore's most important work was done battling Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel for headers. His best happened on the wings, drawing fouls, setting up crosses and otherwise giving Sunderland reason to hope, and breathe.
But when those crosses came, Altidore wasn't there to finish them. No one really was. And while he clearly benefited from the wider, freer style of interim manager Kevin Ball, it was an unrewarding day for Altidore and his teammates, losing 3-1 to Liverpool.
The Reds' 3-5-2 played right into Sunderland's hands at first. With Liverpool largely pinned to its own 18-yard box in the opening 20 minutes, it looked like it would only be a matter of time before a ball found Altidore and the back of the net.
But Liverpool nipped Sunderland twice on the counter before halftime. Altidore continued to torment Sakho and Skrtel and appeared to draw several uncalled fouls on the former, but the Black Cats midfield had to tread more lightly, serve balls from deeper and became increasingly dependent on Altidore checking back and wide to seriously threaten.
Considering Liverpool's three-man back line, it was smart of Altidore to drag the defenders wide. Unfortunately for Sunderland, Altidore was one of the team's best linking players and its best target.
He couldn't do both.
It showed when Altidore tossed Sakho aside in the 84th minute, getting called for the foul. Trailing by a goal and with Liverpool hardly looking airtight in defense, he still had to cross the midfield line to get touches in the middle of the field.
Altidore did the thankless task well, but another Sturridge-Suarez counter made it all irrelevant in the 89th minute.
When the final whistle blew about five minutes later, Altidore was 50 yards from Mignolet's goal running toward a ball that was just out of reach.
Best look: In the 62nd minute, Altidore picked the ball up about 40 yards from Simon Mignolet's goal, ran at a retreating Liverpool back line and let fly from 25 yards out with his right foot. Mignolet only had to step shortly to his left to catch the shot, though. Altidore appeared to be aiming for the upper-right corner of the goal. It was a fairly easy save on a well-hit but ultimately tame effort.
Most impressive: Altidore shrugged off Martin Skrtel just above midfield inside the left touch line in the 59th minute, picked his head up and nearly picked out Adam Johnson in the right channel. Howard Webb whistled the play dead for an advantage foul by Skrtel.
-Emanuele Giaccherini looks the most likely to form a dangerous partnership with Altidore. They rotated well together between Liverpool's back and midfield lines. Sunderland just found Giaccherini more than Altidore today.
-Altidore's foot speed isn't an issue. Trapped between Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and the left touchline at midfield in the 69th minute, he pulled back and away from the Brazilian holding midfielder and drew a foul. He also tricked Kolo Toure into giving up a couple throw-ins on a day when Toure was nearly unbeatable.
-When Giaccherini scored in the 52nd minute off a Craig Gardner rebound Altidore was on top of the 18-yard box, just to the left of the semi-circle.
-Altidore is fully up for these physical battles. When he's not winning them he's opening up a lot of space for Giachherini and any other teammate in the attacking half of the field.
Final Stats (team total)
Shots: 3 (25); Shots on goal: 1 (5); Fouls drawn: 3 (11)
Sunderland really does look liberated with Di Canio gone, but if Altidore's going to get on the scoresheet and the club is going to start winning, Ball or whoever replaces him has to figure out how to get wingers like Adam Johnson the ball further upfield.
Right now Sunderland either drives crosses into settled defenses or tries to hit teams on the break. Altidore's the one keying the breaks though, leaving no true frontman to finish whatever comes of them.
There's enough talent in this squad to get Altidore to 10 goals and keep Sunderland out of the relegation battle. But first, the team needs to figure out where it draws the proverbial line in the sand when defending in midfield because Altidore cannot be the No. 9 and the No. 10.
Player rating: 6.5
- Jacob Klinger