SUNDERLAND’S season is picking up very nicely, but one area continues to give cause for quiet concern.
And Saturday’s FA Cup game against Kidderminster Harriers illustrated it perfectly: lack of goals.
More specifically, a lack of goals from their strikers. And perhaps more specifically still, a lack of goals from Jozy Altidore.
On Saturday, the Black Cats sailed dangerously close to achieving the unlikely feat of being booed off the field for a cup victory.
That was because fans were so frustrated that Sunderland could not finish off a Conference side they were clearly streets ahead of in every department, save finishing.
It has been a season-long malaise.
Sunderland are averaging less than a goal a game in the Premier League – despite their recent four at Fulham.
Only Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Norwich City have scored fewer than the Black Cats’ 21 goals.
Significantly, Cardiff’s top scorer is five-goal former Sunderland striker Fraizer Campbell, at Norwich it is five-goal forward Gary Hooper and even at the league’s lowest scorers, 14-goal Palace, a striker, Marouane Chamakh, leads the list with four goals to his credit.
At Sunderland, the most prolific scorer is winger Adam Johnson, who recently took over from full-back Phil Bardsley as the club’s leading marksman.
Johnson has five league goals to his name – one more than Fletcher and Altidore combined, and that’s simply not a statistic that can be tolerated at any Premier League club hoping to remain a fixture in the division.
Fletcher has had a poor season by the standards expected of a £12million striker, but he has some mitigation in his favour – he has made his way back from long-term injury this season, which largely robbed him of a pre-season.
And his ratio of three league goals in 12 starts and six sub appearances is, by some distance, superior to Altidore’s of one goal in 13 starts and seven sub appearances.
Sunderland need more – much more – from Altidore, and that is clear not only to the fans but to Gus Poyet and the player himself.
The American striker was one of only two big-money signings made last summer – Emanuele Giaccherini being the other – and arrived with a seemingly excellent pedigree.
Not only did he have the powerful physique of a target-man, but he was also a regular goalscorer for both club and country.
He had scored 33 times in all competitions for AZ Alkmaar the season before his arrival, and fitted the “young and improving template” favoured by the club, at the age of only 24.
He had many admirers when he first arrived on Wearside and, if his early form was patchy, there were plenty ready to support him and give him the benefit of the doubt as he settled in.
Now, though, it has become clear that he has managed the unusual feat of both settling in and going backwards.
He was not brought in to be an Emile Heskey – an important presence up front who scored infrequently – but he has not even managed to fulfil that role.
Despite occasional flashes, his build-up and hold-up play has been generally sub-standard.
There is a difference between being physical and being effective and Altidore has racked up 32 fouls in the league season, yet only won nine tackles – the worst ratio in the league, according to the EA Sports Index.
That’s why Saturday’s Kidderminster game could and should have been such an important one for him – the perfect morale-booster for the run-in to the end of the campaign.
Against poorer defenders and playing for a side expecting to be on the attack throughout the American international should have tormented centre-halves Mickey Demetriou and Josh Gowling.
He might have scored in the very first minute, but, in a good position in the six-yard box, he missed an excellent opportunity. And the only real problem he caused the centre-halves was when he mis-controlled a ball to Gowling which panicked the defender into passing straight to goalscorer Charis Mavrias.
Anyone can have an afternoon when goals are difficult to come by, but the other side of his game was disappointing too – his first touch, his close control, his work-rate and his distribution should have been a defining factor when he dropped deeper.
But too often, all those areas of his game brought moans and groans from the crowd.
Leading the line at a Premier League club is a difficult job, but it is also a perilous one for those who don’t make the grade.
And the time must be approaching when Sunderland have to decide whether or not to persevere with Altidore in the hope there is something there, or consider abandoning the project in the near future.
Poyet has revealed that Sunderland continue on the look-out for a striker this transfer window. He has also talked of handing the in-form and enthused Fabio Borini a more central role and admitted that even England Under-21 man Connor Wickham, widely considered to have missed the boat at the Stadium of Light, is being considered for a recall on the back of his eight goals in 11 games on loan to Championship side Sheffield Wednesday.
Either way, Poyet has to find ways of generating more goals from his front-men this season if Sunderland’s Premier League future is not to be imperilled further.
And if Altidore isn’t part of the solution then, sadly, he becomes part of the problem.
The big American had many supporters on his arrival at Sunderland, but week by week they have begun to melt away to the point where they may disappear entirely by the advent of spring.
Kidderminster should have been the moment seized by Altidore, instead it was quite the reverse.
And he has to realise that time is now beginning to run out on his dream of becoming a star in Sunderland’s stripes.
His failure to find goals or make decisive contributions in other areas of the game, is becoming a luxury Sunderland can no longer afford to indulge.