Arsène Wenger watched his new left-back Nacho Monreal terrorised by Stéphane Sessègnon and saw Carl Jenkinson sent off but still ended the afternoon a winner.
On a day when Arsenal initially threatened to win by a cricket score but ended up clinging on for victory Santi Cazorla's decisive first-half goal proved just sufficient to keep Wenger's team very much in contention for a top-four finish.
Some things never change. It was certainly no surprise to see Lee Cattermole, newly restored to Martin O'Neill's side following his most recent knee trouble, receive a third-minute booking for a wild challenge on Aaron Ramsey. Forget the suspensions, if Cattermole does not learn to intercept rather than dive in so needlessly he will be in danger of wrecking his knees, and career, for good.
An untimely calf strain in the warm up had left Laurent Koscielny unable to start in central defence and meant Wenger promoted Jenkinson from the bench. With Bacary Sagna relocated to centre-half, Jenkinson took over at right-back.
This unscheduled revamp appeared to have done Arsenal little harm as Theo Walcott caught the home defence cold before unleashing a shot that provoked a fine save from Simon Mignolet.
Arsenal looked dangerous but Sunderland, too, had their moments, most notably when Sessègnon ran at Monreal, Wenger's new left-back, freshly arrived from Malaga. Presumably in a deliberate attempt to highlight Monreal's vulnerabilities, O'Neill had, unusually, rejigged his formation, moving Sessègnon from the hole behind Steven Fletcher to wide on the right. This involved sacrificing Sebastian Larsson's dead-ball skills – the Swede began on the bench – but the manner in which Sessègnon's advances had Wenger furrowing his brow must have felt like vindication to Sunderland's manager.
O'Neill's five-man midfield had clearly been instructed to deny Jack Wilshere the space Brazil allowed the England midfielder at Wembley last week and Wenger waved his arms in despair as the referee turned a blind eye to a series of fairly robust challenges on his No10.
Wilshere though is not exactly a shrinking violet and, undaunted, he continued to construct passing triangles with Walcott and Cazorla. The latter's fast feet and even quicker brain posed Sunderland persistent problems. Indeed it seemed fitting that it was Cazorla's shot which arrowed through a thicket of defenders to open the scoring after Wilshere had surged ahead of Jack Colback to initiate a slick move that involved Walcott cleverly picking out Cazorla.
By then Sunderland had Mignolet to thank for superbly diverting Ramsey's slightly deflected 20-yard shot and they were soon equally grateful to their Tottenham loanee Danny Rose for a brilliant block to deny Walcott a goal following Wilshere's flick.
With Mignolet making a brave, point-blank save to prevent Ramsey scoring after Olivier Giroud had set up the midfielder half-time could not come swiftly enough for O'Neill.
Sensibly, Sunderland's manager replaced Cattermole – who could learn a lot from studying Mikel Arteta's defensive midfield game for Arsenal – with Larsson at the interval. Almost immediately the Wearsiders might have equalised. When Monreal appeared to bring Sessègnon down in the area after being beaten by the Benin international the Stadium of Light screamed for a penalty.
Contentiously, none was awarded but it was not long before another worry preoccupied Wenger. This time it was Wilshere who remained in a crumpled heap following a collision with Alfred N'Diaye. Eventually Wilshere hobbled, rather gingerly, off to be replaced by Abou Diaby and even Sunderland supporters looked relieved when he indicated the problem was not too serious by taking a seat in the dug-out rather than going down the tunnel for immediate treatment.
With Rose suddenly a dynamic attacking force from left-back O'Neill's players had perked up. When Sessègnon dispossessed Ramsey he created a wonderful chance for Fletcher only for the centre-forward to slice his shot wide.
No matter; home optimism increased once again when Jenkinson was sent off for a second bookable offence. Already given a yellow card for a first-half foul on Colback, the young defender headed off for an early wallow in the Radox after a reckless tackle on Sessègnon.
The time had come for O'Neill to introduce a second striker and, against a soundtrack of reassuringly warm applause, Danny Graham, the boyhood Newcastle fan signed from Swansea for £5m last month, jogged on to join Fletcher in attack.
A shot soon rifled against a post but it came at the other – from Walcott. Even so Sunderland might have equalised had Wojciech Szczesny not performed wonders to tip Fletcher's goalbound header over the bar and had Titus Bramble not missed horribly from the ensuing corner.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald