Santi Cazorla's first-half strike was enough for Arsenal to defeat Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light despite losing Carl Jenkinson to a red card after 62 minutes.
Cazorla's fine finish was the highlight of an impressive performance from the Spaniard, though he so nearly added an assist when his sumptuous pass put Theo Walcott clear, only for the winger to hit the post.
At that stage Arsenal had already been reduced to 10 men when Jenkinson received a second yellow for a clumsy challenge on Stephane Sessegnon and Sunderland laid siege to the Arsenal goal in the closing stages with Wojciech Szczesny making a succession of fine saves and Titus Bramble guilty of a horrendous miss.
But thanks in no small part to a giant performance from Bacary Sagna in the unfamiliar position of centre-back, Arsenal held on for the win that ensures they remain within four points of North London rivals Tottenham in fifth and overtake Everton, who play Manchester United on Sunday.
Arsenal lost Laurent Koscielny to a calf problem in the warm-up so Jenkinson's name was hastily scribbled into the starting XI, with Sagna moving into the centre to take up an unfamiliar role alongside Per Mertesacker.
Sunderland hoped to take advantage of any uncertainty in the opening minute as they flung a ball into the heart of the Arsenal defence for Alfred N'Diaye, only for the midfielder to fail to get a clean header away.
A hectic, physical opening brought a flurry of chances. Theo Walcott almost scored after two minutes when his low drive was repelled by Simon Mignolet and the winger was denied by the Belgian again soon after when finding space to the right of the box and rifling in an effort from a tight angle.
Lee Cattermole - one of two changes for Sunderland as he made his first start since suffering knee ligament damage in November - was soon back into his combative stride when being booked for a lusty challenge on Aaron Ramsey after only two minutes. Seven minutes later Jenkinson joined him in the book for a foul on Jack Colback as the game developed a robust edge.
Sunderland threatened only sporadically - Steven Fletcher going close with a header from a free-kick - and the visitors took firm control of the game, with Jack Wilshere and Cazorla knitting some superb passing moves together and Walcott a constant threat when cutting in from the right.
With Olivier Giroud having an off day, wasting one fine chance by dragging a shot wide of the post, Arsenal lacked a clinical dimension and were repeatedly denied by Mignolet, not least when the keeper tipped a strong drive from Ramsey wide and then denied the same player an almost certain goal from close range.
However, the impressive Cazorla put Arsenal in front after 35 minutes. Wilshere was the catalyst with a trademark driving run from midfield and when Walcott laid the ball off for the Spaniard, he pinged a low shot past Mignolet with the toe of his boot.
But Wilshere's bright afternoon was brought to an end on 50 minutes when he sustained an injury on his already strapped thigh following a minor collision with N'Diaye. England's man of the match against Brazil was removed from the game, with Abou Diaby on in his place, and in the next few minutes both Ramsey and Mikel Arteta sustained knocks to leave Arsenal's midfield resembling the supporting cast of Casualty.
As Cazorla and Giroud both flashed fine efforts narrowly wide of the post, Arsenal were given a warning as to their vulnerability when Sunderland broke following a Ramsey mistake, Sessegnon drew Sagna to the centre and then played in Fletcher, who lashed his shot criminally wide of the post.
Arsenal's efforts to secure a second and kill the game off were hindered after 62 minutes when Jenkinson was shown a second yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Sessegnon, yet still they attacked, with Diaby shooting at Mignolet and Walcott hitting the base of the post with a neat finish following a gorgeous through-ball from Cazorla.
Sunderland began to put more pressure on their opponents though, and should have equalised on 78 minutes when Fletcher saw a close-range effort expertly saved by Szczesny, even if he handled in the build-up.
With Giroud wasting further chances in attack, Arsenal had to rely on their defence to win them the game and Sagna and Mertesacker both produced superb displays to keep Sunderland at bay. Szczesny excelled too, making an outstanding save to tip a header from Fletcher over the bar and then keeping out a fine effort from Adam Johnson.
Titus Bramble was also guilty of a glaring miss when the ball bounced up to him eight yards from goal, but Arsenal were ultimately good value for the three points as Sagna helped secure a valuable clean sheet.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Bacary Sagna (Arsenal) - The France international has had a poor couple of months for Arsenal but this was a gigantic performance in an unfamiliar position and he made a succession of crucial clearances.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 8, Gardner 6, Bramble 6, O'Shea 6, Rose 6, Cattermole 6, Colback 5, Sessegnon 7, N'Diaye 6, Johnson 6, Fletcher 6. Subs: Graham 6, Larsson 6, Vaughan 6.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 8, Jenkinson 5, Sagna 9, Mertesacker 8, Monreal 6, Arteta 6, Wilshere 7, Walcott 7, Cazorla 8, Ramsey 6, Giroud 5. Subs: Diaby 6, Miquel N/A.
- Sports & Recreation
- Theo Walcott
- Bacary Sagna
- Carl Jenkinson
- Santi Cazorla