After twelve months of bitter debate, Wahbi Khazri’s Sunderland career heads for a surprisingly swift conclusion.
Within hours of L’Equipe reporting interest from Rennes in the Tunisian playmaker, he had been snapped in an airport ready to seal a deal.
An Instagram post reaffirming his commitment to the club days earlier had fooled no one; this was a player ready to leave.
Fittingly for a player who always proved divisive, his departure has sparked much acrimony. Not the departure in itself, for even his most ardent admirers watched his erratic cameo at Oakwell, in which he was booed throughout, and accepted it was time to draw a line in the sand.
Instead the debate has been sparked from the terms of the deal, Sunderland managing only a loan while the same club shell out £9 million for West Ham’s Diafra Sakho, who managed just four appearances last season due to injury.
For Simon Grayson this will ultimately have been a straight-forward decision.
The Black Cats had fielded no interest in a permanent deal for a player he did not seem to trust tactically, had little interest in remaining at the club, eating up a portion of his already stretched wage budget. Sunderland expect any suitor to take on Khazri’s wages for the duration of the season.
Despite a sparkling start to pre-season Khazri’s career was as good as over after that dire first half at St Johnstone in which Sunderland entered the break 3-0 down. Grayson hammered players for their application, before taking the unusual step of naming Khazri as at fault for Vito Mannone’s comical own goal.
He had played a wild backpass from the halfway line, a moment that rather summed up the divide between how Khazri is seen by onlookers, and by managers. His imponderability exciting for the former, infuriating for the latter.
If Grayson is able to use the wages freed to bring in a player he trusts, he will deem it good business. Doing that will also be crucial to assuaging fans bemused by the deal.
For Sunderland, there is obvious soul-searching to be done as to how a player, in the prime of his career, can see his value depreciate so rapidly in such a short space of time.
It can happen to any club, even Southampton, whose transfer deals are so vaunted. The prodigious talent Sofiane Boufal has made minimal impact and would now be valued nowhere near the near £16 million they paid for him last summer.
Newcastle United have had similar problems in the past, having to loan expensive acquisitions Florian Thauvin and Remy Cabella back to Ligue 1, only able to recoup a fee once they had proven themselves again. Sunderland’s best chance of getting a good fee may actually be if Khazri now goes and plays well in France for a year.
Khazri’s decline, nevertheless, is the latest Sunderland transfer flop, but one that in some ways is even more frustrating than the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alvarez.
Whilst those two never threatened to settle, Khazri did, a menace for the first six months of his time on Wearside.
Allegations last year of laziness, a poor attitude, never quite rang true given his persistence during that time under Big Sam, when his contribution was less about creative output and more about his drive and running.
For a while it seemed as if Khazri would be stuck behind the under-performing Adnan Januzaj and Fabio Borini no matter what, something which seemed to break his spirit and confidence.
He has completed a full game just four times since the end of the 2015/16 season, and spent long spells on the touchline. That ultimately saw his value plummet, and is the main reason why Sunderland found themselves with no suitors for a permanent deal.
In an interesting interview soon after relegation, Khazri said that his exile from the starting XI had given him perspective on football. Certainly at the start of this season, he did not play like someone with a major point to prove.
He may well do that in France, as Jeremain Lens did at Fenerbahce, something which would be of financial benefit to Sunderland in the long run.
In the short term, Grayson and the club feel it is best simply to let a player go who does not want to be here. That ethos is the foundation of the new manager’s plans.
Sunderland should have commanded a fee for him, but mismanagement of the player last season has thwarted that.
It was never going to be a quiet departure. Khazri has been many different things to many different people, but always a talking point.