Phil Smith: Khazri, Kone, and Kirchhoff saved Sunderland from the drop, so how did it come to this?

Sunderland 2-2 West Ham United 15-04-2017. Picture by FRANK REID
Sunderland 2-2 West Ham United 15-04-2017. Picture by FRANK REID
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It seems inconceivable, now, but there was a time when Sunderland were drifting under Big Sam.

Wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke City gave way to a wretched December where the Black Cats lost five on the spin. They conceded 12 and scored just three.

The nadir was a soul-destroying 1-0 defeat to Watford in the Wearside sleet, a wretched game in which Jermain Defoe was dropped to the bench and Ola Toivonen started in midfield. At the end of December, the manager drew giggles when describing the month in particularly crude terms, but there was a sense of drift not too different to what we have currently. The football was of a similarly turgid fare.

Then came three signings who wrote their names into Wearside folklore, players of top half quality who changed everything.

Kone, Khazri, Kirchhoff, Sunderland’s Special K, the trio who embodied Sunderland’s bright new future. Kone was a titan at the back, dangerous in both boxes, the kind of no-nonsense centre-half adored by both Allardyce and the Sunderland terraces.

Khazri, a waspish attacker whose end product often frustrated, but who brought energy to the front line and helped Defoe prove once and for all that he could lead the line on his own.

Kirchhoff was a player whose intelligence and reading of the game had been all too rare during Sunderland’s return to the Premier League. His technique was flawless, from his early passes on the counter to his sweeping slide tackles.

Twelve months on, they have been able to make virtually no impact on Sunderland’s season. That is a source of frustration but more importantly going forward, it has also seen their value decline.

How has it happened?

A mirror of Sunderland’s season as a whole, it is a story one part misfortune, one part mismanagement.

Kirchhoff was Allardyce’s great gamble. Pep Guardiola admired him at Bayern, using him regularly in a midfield berth in his first season. A manager of whom it is often said would pick ten central midfielders if he could, there was no higher compliment.

To land him for less than a £1 million said everything about his fragility. Allardyce managed him superbly, but was also fortunate to get so much football out of him. He will have no shortage of suitors this summer, such is his quality. The clamour to tie him to a new deal earlier this season was understandable, but now it seems like a rare example of caution being well exercised on Sunderland’s part.

Lamine Kone, you suspect, is now worth far less than last summer when everyone was #TeamKone. The events of the early season undermined the new manager and have left a sour taste ever since. Was he simply unsettled by the departure of the manager who brought him to the league? Perhaps, but the new manager gave him a new contract and selected him time and time again.

His response has been well below par for the most part, never better summed up than when the 5ft 6 Alexis Sanchez towered above him in the box to win a header. Will Ronald Koeman, one of the game’s great centre-halves, still want to spend £20 million on him this summer, particularly after the emergence of Mason Holgate and Matthew Pennington? Kone will have suitors, but Sunderland will not turn their best transfer profit since their return to the league, as they once threatened to. Either way, you suspect his absence will not be too keenly felt.

The most frustrating of the three has this season been Wahbi Khazri.

Last year he was arguably the least effective of the three, and it must be said that his West Ham heroics have not always been repeated when he has played. Yet in a one-paced, predictable team, Khazri brings a welcome flash of the unknown.

He is a prime asset, 26, a set-piece threat, an assist maker, one of the best attackers at the African Cup of Nations, for all his flaws.

His career at Sunderland threatens to go the way of Stephane Sessegnon, too much focus on the can’t do, rather than the can do. His departure after relegation will be understandable, the prospect of not making a profit is not, and all too familiar.

Perhaps it is best to wait and see where the three go next before making a definitive judgement.

Perhaps they will prove that their blistering five month form was not the norm. Or perhaps they will blossom, making this season look like a greater missed opportunity.

Their decline mirrors Sunderland post Big Sam, partly infuriating bad luck, partly a story of assets mis-managed.