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Black Cats Analects: The Tunisian Playmaker

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Hold onto your hats, Sunderland faithful, there's a new set-piece specialist in town.

Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

"Khazri’s not as skilful as Mesut Őzil but in terms of the amount of chances he creates, he could be Sunderland’s Őzil."

It’ll be a fine day in hell when Sunderland fork out on a £34.5m playmaker, but when Andy Brassell dared to compare the £8.85m Wahbi Khazri to the Premier League’s assist leader, it got some talk going. Surely, this Tunisian nobody out of Bordeaux isn’t the creative flair the club has been waiting for all this time, is he?

French-born Khazri is no stranger to Sunderland's woes. In 2009, the 18-year old was relegated with Sporting Club de Bastia into the French third-tier, the Championnat National. A successful appeal is all that prevented ‘Les Bleus’ from being administratively dunked into the amateur divisions; allowing Khazri to begin a gradual ascent through the French professional leagues.

The Tunisian’s development started in SC Bastia’s 2010/11 Championnat National campaign and would culminate in the clubs 2013/14 Ligue 1 top ten finish. This remarkable rank-rise over four seasons was largely credited to the developmental work of head coach, Frédéric Hantz. Khazri, still a teenager upon Hantz’ arrival at SC Bastia, was transformed by his coach from bit-part so-so youth prospect, to being the club’s key-man left winger, and later a crucial midfield creative outlet.

It was insightful to see a young talent quick to prove himself in France’s top-three football tiers.

The winger was tested across both flanks during the club’s Ligue 2 return in 2011/12, and was a ridiculously efficient chance creator and goal scorer from the off. However, it was the test of Ligue 1 that would prove whether this assist-unit could cut it against the country’s finest players.

He could and then some.

Now firmly dispatched as the central creative midfielder, Khazri sparked a season-long attacking master-class in the 2012/13 Ligue 1 campaign. Multiple assists per game became common, but his true worth was in his 4-1 one-man mauling of Rémi Garde’s Olympique Lyonnais, when the Tunisian produced a brace-of-assists and a goal at the Stade Armand Cesari.

Likewise his late surge of goals versus Lille OSC and HSC Montpellier, in the 2013/14 Ligue 1 season, were equally as crucial; and were the difference in securing SC Bastia’s top ten finish in May 2014. It was another stellar campaign from Khazri, in his final appearances for Frédéric Hantz.

Such form as Khazri’s demanded the attention of European spot-chasing clubs, and Willy Sagnol’s FC Girondins de Bordeaux took the €1.5m punt on the playmaker in July 2014. Now near-perennially stationed as an attacking central midfielder, Khazri stacked up a 9 goal/7 assist haul in all competitions; firmly placing ‘Les Girondins’ into the UEFA Europa League picture.

In this 2015/16 season, the Tunisian has had a guaranteed team-of-the-year sort of campaign. His three-goal contributions against Paris Saint-Germain and again versus Lyon were genuine class.  And last month, he signed off his half-season at FCGB with the match-winning assist over Lille, taking Khazri’s goal contribution this season to 6 goals, 7 assists – an excellent half-season return.

So, we’re talking 113 games, 27 goals, 26 assists - not too shabby at all.

And that brings us back to the original point. Wahbi Khazri gets the assists, sure, but how is he supposed to be Sunderlands answer to Mesut Őzil for under nine million pounds? The answer, simply put, is the Tunisian’s very real high-standard of chance creation.

Or, more accurately, how those chances are created. See, Wahbi Khazri can’t pick out a key pass from nowhere like his Arsenal counterpart, but there is some specific means of getting assists that he is extremely efficient at.

First, as an overview; Khazri averages 2.7 chances created per game this season, ranking him at 5th in Ligue 1, 5th compared to Premier League players, and way above Sunderland's current best (Adam Johnson at 1.6).

The Tunisian averages 2.3 successful chances created per game for in-play crossing; only one Premier League player has done better: Mesut Őzil. For quantity, Khazri has delivered 28 successful crosses this season; only one Premier League player has done better: Mesut Őzil.

Then there’s Khazri’s chances per game created from set-piece corners; only one Premier League player has done better: Mesut Őzil. And there’s Khazri’s quantity of chances created from set-piece free-kicks (8); but nobody in the Premier League has more.

You get the idea. Khazri’s other stats are less extraordinary. His 61% take-on dribbling success rate puts him in good company, at around one completed every 45 minutes (equal to Raheem Sterling). His 6 goals from 19 on-target attempts of 40 total shots near-mirrors Jermain Defoe’s ratio in front of goal too, which can’t be a bad thing.

Elsewhere his passing, as with most creative types in the attacking third, dabbles around the mid-70% mark.

So then, it’s fair to suggest that Khazri ticks most boxes as a genuine, versatile creative outlet; and for Sam Allardyce to recruit him during a peak-form season and at a reasonable market value, is great business.

Sunderland now have a player capable of producing something uniquely special. Khazri, with his wing-play assist rate, goal-scoring record, high-quality set-piece play, and technique, embodies much of the strengths of Sunderland's attacking players in one.

So long as Allardyce keeps an eye on his discipline (Khazri has an atrocious habit of being suspended), there’s a player on Wearside now who can make enough of a difference to keep this club in the Premier League.

So that’s Wahbi Khazri; a player who has worked himself to the bone to prove himself, from the gutter leagues of France to the Premier League limelight.

We don’t get many opportunities to say it, but we have bagged a player who isn’t just good, but great. You know what he can do. You’ve seen what he can do. He may never be able to pull off everything the world’s best playmakers can, but what he’s best at – he is damn-near the best at in this league: the set-play, the corner kicks, the free-kicks, the high-ball crossing . . . no, this isn’t Sunderland's Mesut Őzil.

This is Sam Allardyce’s Mesut Őzil.