Even before 10 minutes of this game had passed, Arsène Wenger was berating the fourth official, Tony Bates. By then Jack Wilshere had been stood on by Lee Cattermole, flattened by Titus Bramble and knocked over by Craig Gardner.
Wenger later claimed he did not want protection for Wilshere – “I want the referee to give a foul when it is a foul” – but that the player had limped off five minutes into the second half would not have surprised the Arsenal manager.
Nor would the fact this game had two parts, not halves. With Wilshere, when Arsenal were superior to their visitors, and without Wilshere, when anything could have happened. There should be a sense of perspective given how little the England midfielder has actually played, but it can be difficult when one person impacts upon a game quite so much.
Carl Jenkinson was sent off in the second half after committing his second bookable offence, but his absence for Arsenal was small in comparison to what followed the visitors’ number 10 limping forlornly to the sidelines after a late challenge from Alfred N’Diaye.
Wenger was asked if he was happy with the treatment meted out to his team. “No. I wasn’t,” he said. “No I wasn’t, but I think especially on Jack.
“Was he singled out? No. When you have the midfield we have, Cazorla, Wilshere, Arteta, they want to stop us from playing. Sometimes they try to stop us from combining and playing. They get close to us.
“I just want the referee to give a foul when it’s a foul. I don’t want any special protection. The referee is not a bodyguard, he is just a referee.
“Jack had a big kick on the thigh. He couldn’t walk and he doesn’t walk properly now. Again, it is a question of four of five days.”
Wilshere (right) watched the remaining half hour from the Arsenal dug out. His major contribution helped Arsenal to win the game, when, after 35 minutes, he burst between Jack Colback and N’Diaye, advanced towards the Sunderland penalty area and flicked the ball with the outside of his left foot to Theo Walcott. Walcott, with his back to goal, laid the ball off to his right, into the path of Santi Cazorla, and the Spaniard drilled his shot past Simon Mignolet, through a crowd of bodies. It was an excellent team goal. There could have been more before Wilshere’s body called time.
Walcott was denied after 70 seconds, Olivier Giroud drilled a shot across the face of goal, Mignolet saved from Aaron Ramsey and on the stroke of half time the goalkeeper stopped Giroud with his thigh.
Then, Wilshere went off, and as Martin O’Neill correctly asserted, Sunderland came roaring back. Within 10 minutes of his departure Steven Fletcher shot into the side-netting. Then it rained chances.
Cazorla, who was outstanding, fired a shot across goal. Jenkinson, only playing because Laurent Koscielny limped out of the warm up with a calf injury, slid recklessly into Stéphane Sessègnon and was booked for a second time. Wojciech Szczesny did well to stop Fletcher in the 78th minute and almost immediately surpassed that with a finger-tip save to touch over a header from the Scot.
“It was a fantastic effort,” said O’Neill. “The players are really down in the dressing room. We played against a really, really good team.
“Absolutely I felt we deserved more. We looked dangerous. In the second half we came roaring at them, even before the man was sent off. I don’t know how we didn’t score.
“Simon was great but their keeper was exceptional in the second half. There was chances galore in the second half. The crowd stayed with us. That type of performance today is what we should be about. We played brilliantly today.”
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O’Shea, Rose (Vaughan, 82); Cattermole (Larsson, h-t); Sessègnon, N’Diaye (Graham, 68), Colback, Johnson; Fletcher.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Sagna, Mertesacker, Monreal; Ramsey, Arteta; Walcott (Miguel, 87), Wilshere (Diaby, 50), Carzola; Giroud.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Man of the match: Wilshere (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10