AFTER the final goalmouth scramble was safely navigated by an unexpectedly resilient Arsenal defence, Steven Fletcher lay prostrate in the Gunners penalty area, head in hands.
It was impossible not to feel a touch of sympathy for Sunderland’s top scorer.
Fletcher has barely missed a chance for the Black Cats since his £12million arrival from Wolves, yet those predatory instincts finally eluded him three times during a second half where Sunderland were wondering how they came away empty-handed for successive Saturdays.
Just before the pivotal dismissal of Carl Jenkinson, Sunderland’s powder-puff attack eventually cranked into life when Fletcher fired into the side netting from the left of goal.
He should have at least hit the target, but the subsequent two misses were even more glaring – Wojciech Szczesny spreading himself well after Fletcher blocked Per Mertesacker’s attempted clearance before the Pole brilliantly tipped the Scotland international’s header over the top.
No-one will lambaste Fletcher. The 25-year-old has been the difference between Sunderland loitering towards the top of the bottom half and lying in a far more perilous position.
But it was ironic that two of Fletcher’s chances arrived when he was finally given a helping hand.
Those arguing that Sunderland need to be playing two frontmen to end their attacking inertia were given even more ammunition, and it was tough to argue with them.
Prior to Jenkinson’s second yellow for a reckless lunge on Stephane Sessegnon, Fletcher could have been forgiven for losing all patience with his supporting cast.
As has been the case far too often for Sunderland this season, Fletcher was a lone gunman.
Sessegnon and Adam Johnson, out wide, were too deep when they received possession and left with too much to do to pose any threat to a makeshift Arsenal defence forced into a change minutes before kick-off when Laurent Koscielny was left lame after the warm-up.
Of the central midfield trio, only the improved Alfred N’Diaye tried to get close to Fletcher by bombing forwards.
Jack Colback was too lethargic in his supporting runs and Lee Cattermole was consumed in marshalling Jack Wilshere.
The result was that Sunderland, like in the first half at Reading, were unable to get out of their own territory.
Without any defensive worries and with Sunderland backing off, it provided a platform for Arsenal to revel in a monopoly of possession.
Santi Cazorla’s opener was brewing for several minutes and only more brilliance from Simon Mignolet prevented what could easily have been an unconquerable lead for the Gunners at the interval.
But Jenkinson’s dismissal, coupled with the introduction of Danny Graham, completely changed the complexion of the encounter.
Although Arsenal remained a threat on the break, it was no longer a scenario of attack vs defence.
With the crowd finally having something to shout about, Sunderland produced a rousing finale and the recipe was the one which supporters have been crowing about since the capture of Graham – two wingers providing the ammunition for two strikers.
After switching flanks early in the second half, Sessegnon and Johnson had the chance to attack their full-backs and aim for someone other than Fletcher in the penalty area.
The debate about partnering Fletcher and Graham will be one which will consume the agenda over the next fortnight, until Sunderland play next (at West Brom), although it shouldn’t be overlooked that Arsenal were down to 10 men when an old-fashioned 4-4-2 put the visitors under so much pressure.
Even if Fletcher has proved he is fallible though, yesterday again demonstrated that he can’t do it all by himself.
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