Despite being resigned to losing star player Wahbi Khazri at the end of his loan deal, Stade Rennes manager Sabri Lamouchi has continued to wax lyrical about the 27-year-old's supreme playmaking talents.
Lamouchi admitted that he doubts Khazri will remain at the Stade Rennais beyond June 30th, when the loan agreement with Sunderland ends, but reaffirmed his belief in the Ajaccio-born attacker's commitment to the cause.
Speaking to Ouest-France, Lamouchi said:
He is a decisive player and the key that shows us the way to success. He is invested and focused on the Stade Rennais. We will try to have fun while his here and will see what happens at the end of the season.
A return from suspension saw Khazri find the net for Rennes in Ligue 1 against Troyes last week, with the attacking midfielder burying a 47th minute penalty to take his tally for the season to eight goals in 16 league appearances.
Since arriving back in France, the former Bordeaux man has proved prolific in front of goal, displaying real quality and playmaking ability along the way.
Khazri has been deployed mainly as a false nine and on the left of a front three for Les Rouges et Noirs and has built up a productive partnership with former West Ham United striker Diafra Sakho.
It’s fairly clear that Khazri is thriving over in France, then, but how much of an impact is he actually having?
So, Wahbi Khazri. Just why has he been such a success this season at Rennes?
RA: I can’t comment on his time at Sunderland but at Rennes he’s been given plenty of game time and a key role in the team. Rennes have lacked a creative player and a regular goal scorer. He’s come and been given that role - with the knowledge he’s such a key player he’s thrived. He’s always had something of an ego which needs to be kept in check but it’s when he’s on the cusp of over confidence is when he’s at his best.
AW: His success is down to the removal of most of his responsibility, defensively or otherwise, and being given the freedom to play in the spaces that he chooses a little more; drifting out wide and picking up the ball a little deeper when needed. He’s also been a little less isolated for Rennes. Despite being used as a lone striker, (playing centrally has always got the best out of Khazri) his supporting cast of Yoann Gourcuff, Ismaila Sarr and Benjamin Bourigeaud have played fairly close to him creating space and providing options in forward areas for a side that enjoy much more the ball than Sunderland did.
We’ve heard he’s played a variety of different positions - what can you tell us about that?
RA: He’s pretty much been used as a striker at Rennes. As mentioned before, a central striker is something Rennes have been missing. It surprised me a little to see him being given a central forward role but it’s a role he’s excelled in. He’s either been played as a lone forward but more recently as part of a front two. In both positions there has been an element of fluidity to his position and has been allowed to roam quite freely but he’s reacted to this position really well.
AW: He has, although that, as far as his Ligue 1 career goes, is nothing new. Where at Sunderland he was largely utilised on the wings, at Bordeaux beforehand he was deployed on both flanks as one of two strikers and, most successfully, in attacking midfield either as part of a 4231 or at the tip of a diamond. For Rennes he’s been deployed as a lone forward, largely because until the signing of Diafra Sakho, Rennes lacked options in that position which has still proven effective but it’s likely he’ll drop into a number 10 role from now on and play off Sakho - a strong forward pair by mid-table Ligue 1 standards.
How do the fans, media and his peers view him?
RA: Fans really like him. When Rennes were going through their desperate run of form earlier in the season, he was pretty much the only bright spark. He can still go missing in games and that’s generally linked to his “mood” wherein he gives the impression of not overly caring. I’d imagine as a teammate that could be slightly frustrating but what he does bring to the team outweighs that. The media identify how important he is to the side - for example based on average match ratings for the season so far, France Football have him as the 13th best player in the league.
AW: His reputation in France isn’t drastically different to how he is seen in England in that Khazri is know for being wildly inconsistent, especially at Bordeaux where he was unplayable one week and disastrous the next - a catastrophic panenka attempt in a derby with Nantes was perhaps a low point. At Rennes, however, he has managed to maintain his form a little more and the perception is that he’s a little flaky and has a poor attitude. He was regularly suspended while at Bordeaux and punched an opponent on international duty, but it’s clear he’s changing and this is to Khazri’s credit as he has the air of a player with something to prove. However, his talent has never really been in doubt for Ligue 1 fans which obviously isn’t true of their Premier League equivalents.
It’s known that there’s no purchase option for Khazri to sign on a permanent basis in the summer. Where do you expect he’ll end up? He’ll obviously leave Sunderland, but I noticed that he’s been linked to Marseille.
RA: I‘d fully expect him to either stay in France or maybe get a move to Spain. I don’t think Sunderland would be looking for too much for him. Rennes are currently in a fight for a Europa League qualification spot in Ligue 1. Maybe if they get that then they could tempt him to stay.
AW: It seems likely he’ll stay in France but a lot will depend on the World Cup. Assuming he behaves himself enough to be part of Tunisia’s squad and maintains his recent form, his options could be fairly board and an mid-table La Liga club might suit his style and skill-set. The Marseille link seems a little speculative for now as OM would probably be seeking bigger names to suit their “Champions Project” and in other areas too with Dimitri Payet and Morgan Sanson likely considered superior options in his position. Nevertheless, it does underline his return to form since joining Rennes. Perhaps Nice might be an interested party having struggled to replace Hatem Ben Arfa and Younes Belhanda as attacking midfielders, but Rennes seem like a good fit and, despite the lack of a purchase option, it is wouldn’t be a surprise to see them make an attempt to re-sign him in the summer, with some money from Ousmane Dembele’s resale clause still likely to be available.
Why do you think he wasn’t fancied in England but has been so successful in France?
RA: We’ve seen it most prominently with Florian Thauvin - a player does well in France, goes to the Premier League but doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not necessarily the player’s fault or that Ligue 1 is inferior. They return to France and thrive. Some players just seem to prefer certain a league. Khazri is another player who just needs to be made to feel important and that he is a key player in the squad. It might be that he didn’t feel that at Sunderland. He had that at Bordeaux and he’s getting that at Rennes. The same has been the case with Thauvin. France have been fairly consistent in producing players who are shall we say “enigmatic”.
AW: The obvious answer would be the difference in individual quality between the two leagues, especially lower down the table and that is at least partly true. But his signing was a fairly risky one for Sunderland at the time given that he was prone to anonymous displays, often fluttering in and out of games and in and out of form. As Khazri found out, such inconsistency doesn’t hold in the Premier League, especially for sides in the bottom third, while his lack of discipline doesn’t suit him to playing out wide for a team that would need him to track back. He can be superb when given the freedom to express himself but he was never really going to get that at the Stadium of Light. Both Rennes and Bordeaux made him the focal point of their attacks with few responsibilities and scope to play more on instincts which suits him, particularly as both sides regularly have the better of games as a top 8 clubs - which is not the case in a Premier League relegation battle, of course.