The signing of Wahbi Khazri in January of 2016 from Bordeaux generated much excitement among fans of the Black Cats. His reputation as being a creative midfielder with an eye for goal and a wicked set-piece delivery made Khazri sound like the player Sunderland’s midfield had been lacking for so long. Under the management of Sam Allardyce, Khazri looked every inch a £9 million player and was one of the crucial factors in our eventual survival last season - his stunning volley against Chelsea being one of the finest pieces of skill seen at the Stadium of Light for many a year.
However, during David Moyes’ tenure, Khazri has been, at best, a peripheral figure at Sunderland, largely limited to brief appearances from the bench and given little opportunity to influence games. While it is easy to criticise Moyes for excluding a player who seems so inherently suited to plug one of the many holes in a struggling Sunderland side, there is a case to be made that Khazri has been the author of his own downfall.
Returning from his holidays Khazri looked visibly unfit during preseason - a cardinal sin in a side that had such success under Sam Allardyce largely thanks to the impressive levels of fitness found throughout the squad. It also did little to inspire sympathy among the Sunderland support, with few quick to defend a man who apparently could not maintain a healthy diet and exercise regime despite being paid tens of thousands of pounds per week. Factor into the equation that Khazri has also not covered himself in any real glory when afforded the opportunity to play this season - though this could perhaps be attributed to limited game time meaning limited match sharpness - and you can understand why both the coaching staff and sections of the support are disappointed with the Tunisian’s displays this season.
That being said, there is a strong case for Khazri’s recall to the side. Sunderland’s midfield has looked absolutely devoid of guile and creativity in recent weeks, with a midfield trifecta of Darron Gibson, Sebastian Larsson and Jack Rodwell more likely to get fans’ blood boiling than their hearts beating. With Didier Ndong the only other likely candidate for a midfield berth, Sunderland are not exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to creative midfield players. That makes it even more baffling that Moyes has so far refused to give Khazri a decent run in the side; especially when you consider how poor Fabio Borini’s performances have been when asked to operate as a wide player.
We saw last season the devastating effect Khazri can have when given the chance to get into positive attacking positions, either delivering pinpoint crosses or having the nous and vision to see gaps in opposition defences that the likes of Borini, Larsson and Rodwell simply do not possess. Khazri was also extremely effective under Allardyce when cutting inside from the left wing and his eye for goal combined with his attacking flair could be exactly what Sunderland need if they are to end the season with something resembling a respectable points total.
It is also worth noting that Adnan Januzaj has performed a similar role to Khazri on the right hand side of Sunderland’s midfield and has consistently looked like Moyes’ best option as an attacking outlet for the team. With the left/right combination of Khazri and Januzaj, opposition defences would be forced to track the movement of both of Sunderland’s wingers, with the potential for Moyes to employ the duo as inverted wingers or to allow them the freedom to switch wings. This in turn could allow more space for Jermain Defoe to exploit, and could potentially enable Sunderland to make better use of one of the Premier League’s most lethal finishers.
While Moyes has made his views on Khazri very clear, it seems obvious that if Sunderland do not change something very soon then we are well and truly doomed. With an experienced international attacking midfielder warming the bench and service to our best goalscorer sorely lacking in recent weeks, the risk that Khazri’s selection may pose in terms of a lack of match fitness and Moyes’ apparent disdain for Khazri’s levels of ball retention must surely be outweighed by the match-winning flair that the mercurial Tunisian brings to Sunderland’s misfiring attack. David Moyes, the ball is in your court.