It may not be a result that changes Sunderland’s inevitable Premier League exit (PLEXIT, anyone?) but at least, against West Ham, the fans got some escapism. For 90 minutes - or 100 due to a Billy Jones concussion - the Sunderland supporters actually got to see some excitement. For the first time in seven games, they scored a goal. Not just one either, they got two! Two actual goals!
Every time The Lads went forward they looked genuinely threatening, spearheaded by the mercurial Wahbi Khazri. Which is exactly why David Moyes was jeered every time he ventured into his technical area. Why has Moyes waited until now, when Sunderland are already doomed, to give Khazri his first start since October?
From the first minute, Khazri did more than most of his team mates had in weeks. Receiving the ball immediately from the kick off, the Tunisian international beat two men, giving himself the opportunity to set up Jermain Defoe on the edge of the box, who saw his shot blocked.
It was Khazri setting out his stall to prove a point to the man in the dugout. Not only did he score Sunderland’s first goal of the afternoon, when his devilish corner found the foot of the far post, but almost all of Sunderland’s attacking play went through him. John O’Shea got his head onto a whipped in free kick to force Darren Randolph into a save, while the man himself also forced the visiting keeper into a save on the stroke of half time. The most exquisite passage of Khazri play though was when he neatly cushioned down a ball over the top from Jermain Defoe. A delightful first touch took centre half James Collins out of the game and Khazri put the ball on a plate for Didier Ndong, who spurred the chance to double his Sunderland tally and almost smashed the windows of The Black Cats Bar.
It wasn’t just flashes of silky skills from waspish Wahbi however. The myth surrounding the fact that he doesn’t work hard enough was put to bed as he chased down lost causes and never stopped pressing The Hammers defence. Something he did constantly last season, so let’s not buy in to the “lazy” tag that has been unfairly thrust upon him.
After returning from The African Cup Of Nations Khazri should have been given a run in the starting eleven. Fabio Borini was out of form and Adnan Januzaj wasn’t suited to playing as a winger in the 4-3-3 that the manager insisted on adopting. It’s insane that neither Borini or Januzaj were dropped and that Khazri was limited to cameo appearances. People may bring up his questionable attitude but when you’re as bad as Sunderland are, you can’t leave out a man who is so confident on the ball, knows how to beat his man, picks the right passes and can also take a wicked set piece.
Even if this is just Khazri putting himself in the shop window, I hope it continues from now until the end of the season because that display on Saturday was one of the few moments of excitement we’ve had in this whole campaign.
It’s not just the play of Khazri that made Moyes look foolish though. Victor Anichebe, who didn’t have a particularly good game, was still enough of a nuisance to cause West Ham problems. In the first half especially, his hold up play was strong and he dragged defenders wide, which opened up further space for the likes of Defoe and Khazri. It didn’t need to be a game where Anichebe played well, he just had to be there, using his physicality to disrupt the opposition defence.
So why, when Anichebe was ruled out for twelve weeks in January, was a replacement not signed? Leonardo Ulloa was pursued and Leicester wouldn’t sanction the move but that’s where Sunderland gave up. It’s not like the replacement for Anichebe had to be anyone brilliant, it’s not like we’re replacing a superstar to start with - we just needed another target man who could fill in.
Had a big, strong, physical striker arrived, along with Khazri being given a run in the side, it would have allowed David Moyes the chance to replicate the system that saw Sunderland win at home to Leicester, Hull & Watford, as well as away to Bournemouth - the only times this season that Sunderland have looked competent for a prolonged period. It’s obvious to anyone that Moyes is reluctant to venture from his preferred 4-3-3 system - the quick dismissal of the 3-5-1-1 is proof of that - so I can’t understand why he didn’t give himself the best chance of making that style of play succeed.
This isn’t to say that this would have fixed all of Sunderland problems but I doubt they’d be so far adrift had these issues been addressed. If only Khazri had been included sooner and if only we signed another target man, we might not be thinking “too little, too late.”