The big Sunderland AFC debates: Nick Barnes and Phil Smith discuss Khazri, Moyes and Kone

Sunderland boss David Moyes
Sunderland boss David Moyes
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BBC Newcastle’s SAFC commentator Nick Barnes and Echo writer Phil Smith sat down to discuss the big Sunderland talking points as the season heads to a galling conclusion.

Here, they look at three of the key issues.

Lamine Kone was dropped for last week's draw against West Ham. Picture by Frank Reid

Lamine Kone was dropped for last week's draw against West Ham. Picture by Frank Reid

The return of Wahbi Khazri....

NICK BARNES: The enigma of Wahbi Khazri!

It could be the title of a crime thriller though in the eyes of most Sunderland fans the crime was, why was Khazri not playing?

David Moyes’ reasons for not playing the Tunisian were legitimate if the team was playing well enough not to need someone of Khazri’s undoubted talent, but the obvious reluctance not to play him when the likes of Januzaj and Borini were clearly suffering from a lack of form was less understandable.

Wahbi Khazri. Picture by Frank Reid

Wahbi Khazri. Picture by Frank Reid

Moyes’ opinion of Khazri was formed last summer in France and subsequently on the training pitch.

Sunderland fans’ opinion of Khazri was formed last season on the pitch and so the perceptions of each were at variance.

However, Moyes surely made a blunder in not introducing Khazri much earlier in the season when, as he did against West Ham, he may have made a similar impact and then Moyes’ position would have been strengthened.

Had he played poorly, Moyes would have been justified in Khazri’s exclusion and there would have been no clamour for Khazri to play.

The failure to do so inevitably led to fans turning Khazri into a beacon of hope.

Moyes’ gamble on playing Khazri against the Hammers last weekend worked ultimately against him and in favour of the player and the fans, who have understandably been left wondering what might have been and questioning Moyes’ decision-making.

PHIL SMITH: Wahbi Khazri is, without question, a quite wildly inconsistent footballer.

His end product often disappoints, and at times he can overcomplicate the basics.

Yet there is a reason why he was such an assist machine at Bordeaux, behind only Argentinian star Angel Di Maria in Ligue 1 before he came to Wearside in January 2016.

Would he have delivered the level of performance against West Ham had he been picked week in, week out?


Still, his performances in the African Cup of Nations, as Tunisia’s primary playmaker, showed that he should have been used more by the Black Cats, and crucially, that he is more than capable of running the hard yards.

Khazri may not have saved Sunderland, but, like fellow African Stephane Sessegnon before him, there has been too much focus on the can’t do.

He should have played more, those in his place had too many chances.

David Moyes the subject of fan boos....

NB: Did it come as any surprise?


I actually thought that David Moyes may have suffered the fans’ boos much earlier if the barometer of social media, radio phone-ins and those I spoke to at matches was any gauge of opinion.

I can only put it down to fans’ apathy at having had to put up with so much for so long they have just lost the will to protest, which actually magnifies the anger felt by those who did protest at the West Ham match.

It cannot have come as any surprise to Moyes bearing in mind a run of seven matches without a goal, the refusal to play Wahbi Khazri to allow the fans’ to judge his ability, and Sunderland’s parlous position.

The arguments will rage for some time about who is responsible for Sunderland’s current plight and, in mitigation of Moyes’ position, he has good reason to feel wrongly maligned.

However, football is often as not about perception and Moyes is perceived as negative and dour.

The Scot’s colourless demeanour and reticent broadcast interviews have worked against him and the reaction of a not insignificant number of fans at the Stadium of Light came as no surprise.

PS: The mood seemed to have turned ahead of the Manchester United game on April 9, missed opportunities and strange selections in three winnable games – Burnley, Watford and Leicester – before then turning frustration into anger.

A defeat to the Old Trafford giants never seemed like the best time to voice that, so it was no surprise that an early West Ham goal, a truly wretched side lucky to have 36 points judging by last weekend’s showing, was the spark.

Where does the manager go from here?

Both Peter Reid and Mick McCarthy turned supporters’ jeers into respect and affection eventually, the former playing wonderful attacking football and the latter instilling real pride and a strong work ethic.

Recruitment will be key for Moyes.

This season has been a major disappointment, a poor hand played badly, and patience will snap if a fast start is not forthcoming next time around.

Sunderland are at in impasse, but backing from above means the manager remains in a strong position.

He must use to sign creative players and set a more positive mood.

Lamine Kone dropped to the bench after a run of indifferent form...

NB: Lamine Kone has not been the player Sunderland fans thought had been bought from the very the start of the season.

The close-season pursuit by Everton derailed his campaign and, although there were signs his form was returning, it was a flash in the pan and Kone’s relegation to the bench should not have come as a great surprise.

A lack of suitable replacements, with John O’Shea sadly absent following his family bereavement and the obvious reluctance to play the accident-prone Papy Djilibodji, meant his substitution didn’t come sooner.

Kone’s influence in the heart of the defence this season has betrayed a lack of awareness and his physicality has been used sparingly and ineffectually.

The back four this season has been a disparate jumble of discombobulating parts of which Kone has been but one misfiring and disappointing part.

PS: In truth, it was not before time.

Kone remains the best centre-half at the club by some distance, but has not performed as such.

Being beaten by strikers not even his size has been a frustrating and regular feature this season.

That titanic performance at Selhurst Park – in Sunderland’s 4-0 win on February 4 – was an insight and a remidner as too what he can do.

He headed, kicked, cleared, blocked, Christian Benteke barely getting a sniff.

He has missed last season’s centre-half partner Younes Kaboul, certainly, but has still fallen short of what he is capable of.

Too many Black Cats players have been able to drift this season, with not enough competition.

It says much too, that quietly, on-loan Manchester City man Jason Denayer is growing into a solid centre-half.

Sunderland, of course, will hardly see the benefit.