Fears that Sunderland would be drawn into a relegation fight have eased with a run of five wins in eight Premier League matches, but their midfielder Sebastian Larsson warned that Martin O'Neill's team cannot slip back into old habits and expect £12m striker Steven Fletcher to keep them safe.
The Scotland international, signed from Wolverhampton Wanderers last summer, hit five goals in his first four Premier League appearances for his new club but no other Sunderland player scored until Adam Johnson struck at Everton in November.
When Fletcher's goals dried up, Sunderland suffered a run of only one win in 10 matches, slipping into the bottom three last month. But Fletcher found his touch again against Reading in their next match and has scored in three of those five wins, culminating in two during Saturday's 3-2 win at the DW Stadium that took his tally to 10 for the season.
"They were two great finishes, two instinctive finishes," Larsson said. "It can only help us if he's scoring. At the same time, we relied way too much on him earlier in the season. Steven's overall play, the way he can hold the ball up and his link play are very important. We've scored a few more goals as a team recently and that's what we have to do, so that teams are not worrying about just him."
Larsson, Johnson and Stéphane Sessègnon have a modest eight Premier League goals between them this season. Little wonder O'Neill believes the money he spent on Fletcher – only just short of the club record – was "worth every penny".
O'Neill said: "We've relied on him in the first couple of months when he was the only player scoring a goal for us. He's really top-class, a top-class centre-forward, not just in the goals he's got but the way he brings others into play. Signing him seemed a long, drawn-out affair but I'm delighted I stuck with it."
Wigan Athletic, who had gone ahead through a David Vaughan own goal, responded well in the second half, building on a superb performance by Shaun Maloney, who drew the best save of the match from Simon Mignolet and provided the cross from which Angelo Henriquez, the 18-year-old Chilean striker on loan from Manchester United, headed his first goal under Roberto Martinez.
But Sunderland had an outstanding newcomer of their own in the 22-year-old former France Under-21 midfielder Alfred N'Diaye and when Fletcher's goals, added to Craig Gardner's penalty, put them 3-1 up the odds were against Wigan. Martinez believes his side's defensive shortcomings, with Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis lost to long-term injury, need to be addressed in the January window if Wigan – now in the bottom three – are to avoid the need for more late-season escapology.
"We need to find a solution and January is a good month to rectify that," Martinez said. "But whoever we bring in will have to have Premier League experience because it is difficult for a foreign player to come in at this stage and pick up the tempo quick enough to make an impact."
premier league top talismen
Goals: Wigan Vaughan og 5, Henriquez 79. Sunderland Gardner pen 17, Fletcher 20, 42. Substitutions: Wig Espinoza 6 (Stam, h-t), Henriquez (Boyce, 72), Boselli (Di Santo, 77). Sun McClean (Johnson, 76), Bardsley (Sessè-gnon, 85), Elmohamady (Vaughan, 90+3). Bookings: Wig Boyce, Beausejour, Henriquez. Sun Colback, Bramble. Man of match Fletcher. Match rating 8/10. Possession: Wig 71%. Sund 29%. Attempts on target: Wig 6. Sund 5. Referee A Taylor (Greater Manchester). Att 19,219.
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