Commentary: Why Altidore is set to shine for AZ Alkmaar
Photo courtesy of AZ Alkmaar
With Jozy Altidore delivered and signed for at AZ Alkmaar, stateside fans are now hoping to see his potential fully realized through the help of some Dutch masters.
The quaint town of Alkmaar once produced the likes of Golden Age painters such as Emanuel de Witte and the van Everdingens, but the question remains: What can AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek, his squad and Nederlandse voetbal make of the canvas that is Altidore?
Let's begin with the most obvious and directly noticeable factor giving the US striker a real prime opportunity to blow up in Holland — his new teammates and how they play.
Verbeek will shift formation from time to time, either for a specific opponent or just to shake things up when the team is flat. Nevertheless, he looks set to begin the Eredivisie season in the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 system and this will likely be the most commonly used set this term.
The Cheese Farmers generally play this famous shape as you would expect, often passing quickly on the ground and usually creating tons of chances. Every club is a little different, though, and AZ tend to prefer bruising busts up the gut to fluttering about on the flanks.
Everything tends to operate out from the spine and Verbeek likes players who will put a good shoulder into opponents when needed. Not only should Altidore feel at home in their style, he should enjoy a virtual buffet of service choices, with playmakers of a different flavor all around him.
Fellow new arrival Ruud Boymans could be in the No. 10 slot behind Altidore, offering up a bullish scrap to the role. From the left, Maarten Martens loves the delicate slip pass as much as the driven low ball across the goalmouth, while half-American wing back Simon Poulsen supplies the curling aerial feeds. Australia ace Brett Holman raids from the right and Rasmus Elm is the deep-trolling magician.
All of these players regularly win restarts, which most often result in a tasty serve from Elm or Maartens. On average last season, AZ took about six corner kicks and made just over 25 centering feeds per game. Despite all this activity, they scored "only" 55 goals in 34 games, which left a fourth place team tied for 10th in offense. It is the Netherlands, after all.
This all brings us directly to our next recipe ingredient for success, and it's one Altidore has really only tasted away from club ball since his New York Red Bulls time: high expectation. He was never counted on for goals at Villarreal, and though oft-used at loan sides Hull City and Bursaspor, he was rarely asked to play the cobra's head.
Nearly 40 percent of AZ's Eredivisie output last season has left with Graziano Pellè and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, the team's top two threats in the air and in the area. Altidore and Boymans will not be expected to match those 21 departed league goals, they will be asked to better it.
Naturally, it's not enough to say that increased pressure to contribute will automatically equal more production, but Altidore has shown some ability to lift his game when required. His output was roundly questioned in the US Soccer bubble before last month's Gold Cup and the striker promptly responded with winners against Canada and Guadeloupe.
At AZ, the final ingredient in this Dutch stew — structure — should ensure that Altidore's goal hunger is well-fed. Verbeek and his staff won't simply place expectations on Jozy. They will specifically show him the way, attack any technical weaknesses in training and talk the game with him until plays like a born No. 9.
Already a good runner off the ball, Altidore should become downright predatory. He will be instructed on the best ways to bring teammates in with back to goal and then peel off to morph into target. He will work obsessively and studiously at tailoring touches and shots.
It all sounds like a pretty picture, indeed. But Altidore has been brought to Alkmaar because he is far from a blank canvas. In my humble opinion, we now must only wait for Verbeek and the technical staff of Earnie Stewart (pictured up top, right, with Altidore) to finish with their brushes.
There can be no denying the Dutch have a magic with attackers. It won't happen overnight, as the learning and unlearning takes a spell. But for the first time in his European career, Altidore is now in place to become a real work of art.