Olivier Giroud's headed goal put the Gunners in front midway through the second half, and Aaron Ramsey's scrappy finish in injury time sealed the team's first league win since October 31. The result moved Arsenal back to second place, two points behind surprise leaders Leicester City.
Although the outcome was positive, particularly given the injury-enforced changes in the lineup, the performance will give manager Arsène Wenger, his staff, and the players much to contemplate as they turn to the busy December schedule.
Here are three things for us all to consider based on Saturday's match.
Arsenal's leads seem precarious
For the third consecutive league match, Arsenal scored the first goal. Such early leads would frequently be decisive, because they allow the team with the advantage to focus on thwarting the opponents and launching counterattacks.
Arsenal have not been able to capitalize of late, however. Just as they had done at West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, the Gunners failed to hold their lead through the half. Joel Campbell's clean strike of Mesut Özil's sublime pass was negated by a Giroud own goal just before halftime.
The specifics were different in each match, but a common thread is defensive instincts that, in the moment, were not precise enough. In this case, Laurent Koscielny's move to nip the ball from Sunderland's Duncan Watmore along the touchline wasn't necessary and proved a split-second late. The subsequent free kick saw Giroud attempt a clearance with the wrong foot, given his relationship to goal; the equalizing goal was the result.
In truth, level terms looked shaky at times on Saturday, too. Arsenal's midfield was bypassed far too easily, leading to clear chances for Sunderland attackers Watmore and Fabio Borini. The new midfield partnership of Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey didn't support the defense enough, especially when one of the fullbacks had made a foray forward.
Arsenal will need to address this weakness before sterner tests ahead.
Arsenal's difference makers again made the difference
The shakiness didn't undo the Gunners because, in Özil and Petr Cech, the Gunners could call on world-class players to see them through.
In the absence of Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, Özil took on more responsibility for the Arsenal attack. The German playmaker attempted 107 passes, 15 percent of Arsenal's total on Saturday. As a point of contrast, the previous match in which Arsenal's first choice lineup attempted at least 600 passes was against Stoke City; Özil's attempts made up 10 percent that day. (Stats from FourFourTwo's StatsZone app)
He misfired on 22 passes, a week after failing on just one pass at Norwich City. But his influence was profound. He had the highest number of passes in the attacking third, created five chances for teammates, had more successful dribbles, and suffered the most fouls.
Özil's brilliant assist for Campbell's opener was his 12th in 14 league games this season. That's an absolutely blistering pace. He has twice as many assists as the next highest providers in the league.
At the other end of the pitch, Cech continues to prove his worth. He made three crucial saves, two of what StatsZone calls "big chances" when the attacker has only the keeper to beat. Cech also scrambled away two other potential own goals.
The goalkeeper is shoring up Arsenal's defense and its position near the top of the Premier League table.
Aaron Ramsey's energy was telling
Last week's injury to Santi Cazorla meant that Aaron Ramsey, himself only a week back from an injury layoff, returned to the center of Arsenal's midfield. It's the position he prefers and one in which he thrived during the 2013-14 season.
Despite Ramsey's time on the sidelines--and perhaps despite the sleep deprivation accompanying his new fatherhood--his energy and influence grew as the match went on. His runs overloaded dangerous areas and helped move Sunderland's defenders from their posts.
The assist for Giroud's goal came from one such occasion, when Ramsey shifted left to adjust to left back Nacho Monreal's dribble infield, received Monreal's pass, and found Giroud just in front of Sunderland's Younes Kaboul. He closed the deal by getting into the box and bundling home Calum Chambers's deflected shot.
Overall, Ramsey was almost as involved as Özil in the attacking third, completing 39 of his team-high 114 passes there. He also attempted seven shots and created four chances for teammates.
We'd perhaps like to see a keener focus on the defensive side from Ramsey--he tried and failed his one tackle attempt and made just one interception--but as a second game back from injury, in a different position, with a different partner in midfield, Ramsey's influence was sizable.
Arsenal's movement from outside to inside created the first two goals. For the first, Campbell ran outside wingback DeAndre Yedlin and was open for Özil's pass. For the second, Monreal carried the ball from outside to inside, scrambling Sunderland's defense just enough for Ramsey and Giroud to find space.
These attacks from the flank proved more productive than attempts to play through Giroud against Sunderland's three central defenders. It's something to watch as Theo Walcott returns to the side from injury.