Arsène Wenger and Roy Keane have spoken about the danger of football losing its soul, but there was plenty of heart yesterday as Sunderland drove Arsenal mighty close before succumbing to a second accomplished strike from Robin van Persie which restored his side to the summit of the Premier League.
The managers had been involved in mutual admiration in the build-up to this encounter and, post-match, there was no deviation. Wenger, when asked about his concerns for the future of the game, said simply: "Not his team, not my team. No, not at all."
However a 10th straight victory for Arsenal in all competitions – and for the third game in a row Van Persie registered the winning goal – did not alter Keane's view as to where the title was heading. Having spent so long in Manchester United red he wasn't for changing. "I would still say United have the edge," he said. "I just feel United are a touch ahead."
What was more surprising was the manner in which Sunderland fought their way back into this contest after falling two goals behind in a whirlwind opening quarter in which Keane feared they would concede "five, six, seven or eight". For a while it did look like that was a real possibility but it was not until Paul McShane's injury-time dismissal, for a crude challenge on Alexander Hleb, that the game was finally up.
That incident occurred right under Keane's nose and the way in which he coolly handled it, ushering away his defender, is becoming a hallmark of his stewardship at Sunderland.
Indeed Wenger appeared the more rattled. There was a familiar furrowed brow – although one that has not been much in evidence this season – as his team were pegged back and then began to toil. In saying that, however, they still had an apparently legitimate goal chalked off, struck the post twice and missed two sitters. This really is a relentless creative team.
Arsenal swept ahead when Grant Leadbitter, in a panic, pushed over Cesc Fabregas as he shaped to shoot on the area's edge. From the free-kick Van Persie struck a vicious left-foot shot which arced around the wall, hammered against the bar and then thudded into the net. It was a breath-taking moment and there was rarely time to grab oxygen as Arsenal poured forward again. This time Craig Gordon tipped over Emmanuel Adebayor's header.
Wenger had praised the Sunderland goalkeeper in his programme notes – confirming that he had attempted to sign the Scot in the summer – but he was soon beaten again. From a corner Kenwyne Jones inexplicably volleyed back towards his own goal and although Nyron Nosworthy hacked clear, the ball fell to Adebayor. Abou Diaby attempted to flick on his measured cross, disorientating the defenders, for Philippe Senderos to mis-hit his shot into the turf, wrong-foot Gordon and score his first Arsenal goal since January 2006.
That was when the Gunners knocked seven past Middlesbrough and when Diaby crashed in another shot a repeat was feared. But Adebayor was incorrectly flagged for off-side. From another corner Senderos then sent a free header the wrong side of the post, holding his head afterwards in embarrassment. "The game looked for us to be easy and maybe we convinced ourselves of that as well," Wenger admitted.
They were soon disabused. It is a cliché – or rather in this case a Gaël Clichy – that the most dangerous scoreline is 2-0 and so it proved as the young French full-back was caught out as Jones redeemed himself. The striker deftly cushioned Dwight Yorke's raking long pass, darting inside Clichy only for Manuel Almunia to block his shot. However, the ball fell to Ross Wallace who calmly found space and drilled in a low shot.
Suddenly belief coursed through the visitors with Liam Miller prominent. They drew level just after half-time when Jones attacked Miller's cross, ahead of Kolo Touré. Although Almunia got his fingers to the header, he could not keep the ball out. "Are you Tottenham in disguise," taunted the Sunderland fans.
Still the best opportunities went to Arsenal. Touré struck a post from 35 yards, as did substitute Theo Walcott from closer in, with the 18-year-old also miscuing horribly from Hleb's cut-back. However he did far better in alertly squaring the ball to Van Persie. With one astute touch the Dutchman controlled and then jabbed home to take the points. "There is a great strength and resilience in the team," Wenger said. "They don't panic." Well, maybe only a little.
Goals: Van Persie (7) 1-0; Senderos (14) 2-0; Wallace (25) 2-1; Jones (48) 2-2; Van Persie (80) 3-2.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna (Eboué, 68), Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Diaby (Walcott, 57); Van Persie (Gilberto, 85), Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Bendtner.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Gordon; McShane, Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins; Yorke (Harte, 89); Chopra (Stokes, 77), Leadbitter, Miller, Wallace (Etuhu, 77); Jones. Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), O'Donovan.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Booked: Sunderland Jones, Chopra.
Sent off: Sunderland McShane (90).
Man of the match: Van Persie