Fifteen points more than last season, one place higher, more games won, more goals scored and fewer conceded, Arsenal have made progress as 2007 turned into 2008, and as Arsène Wenger departed the Stadium of Light yesterday, he acknowledged a sense of "anti-climax" but "not failure. We have lost a 100 metres by a fraction of a second. Someone has just stuck their chest out, we were on the line with them."
Manchester United's home form – they won three more games at Old Trafford than Arsenal did at the Emirates – was the difference, Wenger said. The gap between United and Arsenal last season was 21 points, now it is four.
"Congratulations, and get ready for the fight next season," was Wenger's message for Sir Alex Ferguson.
"I would not say this season has been a failure, quality-wise we have been remarkable, I have never had a team that has consistently produced quality like this one. It is disappointing, you don't fight this hard to make it third, but a conjunction of bad luck and the first time this young team has had to deal with big pressure, maybe the combination of the two has cost us."
This, Arsenal's 10th away win, was not as thrilling as many of them, but Theo Walcott's seventh goal of a developmental season was enough to beat a Sunderland side that forced Lukasz Fabianski into a save after 15 seconds and another two minutes into injury-time but which created little else.
Walcott took his goal with style, racing on to an incisive Gilberto pass. Moving at his customary roadrunner pace, Walcott had the composure to slot the ball beyond Marton Fulop, Craig Gordon's stand-in.
Wenger said that Walcott had begun the season "as a promising young player and finished it as a guy ready to compete for a place in the side." Another promising player, Mark Randall, 18, came on as a substitute and was denied Arsenal's second by another fraction, a marginal offside decision.
For Sunderland, the only one of last season's promoted teams to stay up, Irishman Roy O'Donovan wasted a good chance from Dwight Yorke's cross.
Goal: Walcott (24) 0-1.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1) Fulop; Whitehead, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins; Yorke (Chopra, 75); Edwards (Miller 71) Leadbitter, Reid, Wallace; Jones (O'Donovan, h-t) Substitutes not used: Gordon, Higginbotham.
Arsenal (4-4-2) Fabianski; Djouro, Song, Senderos, Clichy; Eboué (Randall, 80) Denilson, Gilberto, Walcott; Adebayor, Bendtner (Traoré, 80) Substitutes not used: Mannone, Barazite, Nordtveit.
Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).
Booked: Sunderland: Collins Arsenal: Clichy.
Man of the match: Song.
Attendance: 47,802.Reuse content