Phil Smith: Hopes of a Khazri renaissance at Sunderland fade after St Johnstone show

Sunderland's pre-season has at times felt faintly surreal.

Friday, 21st July 2017, 12:00 pm
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 11:25 am
St. Johnstone 3-0 Sunderland AFC 15th July 2017. Picture by FRANK REID

There has for the most part been the same pattern, the low tempo games, the rafts of mass substitutions, the ever-growing itch for the real thing to begin.

Sunderland have looked like a side still uncertain of themselves, partnerships being built, unfamiliar faces finding their way and adapting to a new regime. That, after all, is the whole point of the exercise.

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There have been rare moments of individual quality, however, so out of keeping with the general play that they have seemed faintly absurd.

Most have come from the feet of Wahbi Khazri or Jeremain Lens.

For Lens, it has felt like a farewell tour. His right foot is one of the best Sunderland has seen, that chip against West Ham still one of the finest individual goals scored in recent years. There have been three goals from it in July, two of them simply outstanding.

His Sunderland career seems over nevertheless, as a sale would clearly suit both player and club. His wages are significant (as Khazri’s are), his commitment to the Championship questionable. The only caveat is for all the constant noise from Turkey, none of the clubs are stumping up the cash as of yet.

The future of Khazri, on the other hand, seems far from settled.

There has been surprisingly little talk of a move away, whispers of interest from France and Turkey but nothing more.

Glittering performances against Hibernian and Livingston raised hopes of a renaissance, and there is little doubt that Khazri could light up the second tier.

What followed at St Johnstone just days later served as a reality check.

Off the ball Sunderland were dire, cut to ribbons in the first half and particularly down the left where Brendan Galloway struggled. The Tunisian, whose work rate is generally far better than he is often given credit for, is nevertheless not one for tracking back in the most part and he certainly did little of it here.

Khazri’s performance clearly riled his manager, who was furious that he opted to shoot from a wide free-kick, and post-match criticised his lengthy backpass that led to the first goal. The other comments, though not aimed purely at Khazri, were even more damning.

It was a reminder that the qualities that make Khazri such a brilliant player to watch, the unpredictability, the off the cuff decisions, are the same that make him so frustrating to so many managers.

David Moyes always insisted it was not about attitude but what he did with the ball, and it has never really been the case that Khazri is seen a problem off the field. The 26-year-old is a lively character and at the heart of the side, has the obvious potential to be a catalyst and talisman.

The debate as to whether you should focus on what players like Khazri can do, rather than what they tend not to do, is almost as old as the game itself and after years of toil at the Stadium of Light, it is hard not to argue for the former.

With Khazri, however, the debate has probably already been settled, for better or for worse. It was particularly noticeable that when asked about Khazri following the Hibs win, the Black Cats boss was careful not to praise too much or raise expectations of him staying.

The Tunisian, like Lens, may well begin the season but it would remain a major surprise if he was still here come September 1.

Above all else, in Aiden McGeady Grayson appears to have signed a ready-made replacement who will be given significant creative freedom. It is a shame Khazri was never really given the same.