In the event, the final irony was provided 43 minutes later by Andy Cole - a former Arsenal player - but in many respects Arsene Wenger's team could hardly be said to have failed in the defence of their championship. By winning this match, when substitute Nwankwo Kanu ended Aston Villa's dogged resistance midway through the second half, they equalled the 78- point mark which was sufficient to secure first place last May.
Arsenal also kept another clean sheet, leaving them with the remarkable record of having conceded just 17 goals in 38 matches - 50 per cent fewer than last season. Moreover, they finished with the division's best home record, and their disappointment was cushioned by the considerable consolation that being runner-up now brings a European Champions' League place. If anyone thinks that standards are slipping in London N5, heaven help the rest of the Premiership.
Wenger, after congratulating United on a "remarkable achievement", said it felt "terrible" to know they had matched last year's record but still emerged without a single trophy. "When you finish one point behind after 38 games it's like losing a marathon by a yard," the Arsenal manager said. "I think we were the best team if you count the points from December. But, in the first half of the season, we dropped too many points."
The reason for Arsenal's indifferent start was, suggested Wenger, the fact that so many of his squad (eight) spent the summer contesting the World Cup. This may sound like sour grapes, but the memory of Dennis Bergkamp's sluggish beginning gives the argument a certain credibility.
He admitted Tuesday's defeat at Leeds had handed the initiative to United, but praised for the way Arsenal kept the issue alive to the last. "Once again the players had a great reaction to a huge disappointment. This is a special team and I'm very proud of them."
The Sigmund Freud of football managers claimed he was not unduly excited by news of Spurs' goal. "If they had gone 3-0 up," he smiled, "that would have been different. But Tottenham had nothing to go for. You could see the difference in Villa, who were fighting for a place in the InterToto Cup."
In the end, a season which once held rich promise for John Gregory's side ended without even that dubious privilege. West Ham's victory over Middlesbrough pushed Villa into sixth place.
It was curious to reflect that, when the sides met at Villa Park in December, Villa were the ones dreaming of a last-day coronation. Since winning that match 3-2 and entering the New Year as leaders, their challenge has fallen apart like a cheap Christmas stocking filler.
Arsenal were not helped by an early ankle injury to their left-back, Nelson Vivas, and consequent imbalance in their ranks. His replacement, Fredrik Ljungberg, went straight to the right wing, with Ray Parlour moving inside, while Emmanuel Petit became Vivas' nominal replacement.
Petit's instinct was to press forward, which invited Villa to exploit a gaping hole, but so intense was the pressure by Arsenal that the visitors took advantage of this unusual instance of French leave only once, and even then Riccardo Scimeca shot feebly wide. Villa frequently had everyone back behind the ball, though such was the dilligence of their covering and persistence of their tackling that Arsenal were frequently restricted to long range.
An Arsenal goal in the opening minutes might have put the cat among the Old Trafford pigeons even before Ferdinand did. But tired minds and weary limbs, allied to goal-line clearances by Gareth Southgate and Simon Grayson, plus some agile goalkeeping from Michael Oakes, meant the breakthrough was delayed until after reports of Cole's goal had induced low groans from Highbury's biggest gathering of the season.
The elastic, fantastic Kanu supplied it within five minutes of replacing Nicolas Anelka, who may well have been taking his leave of Arsenal. Villa failed to clear Petit's corner, allowing the Nigerian to control the ball with characteristically deft footwork before prodding it in from spitting distance.
Goal: Kanu (66) 1-0.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Vivas (Ljungberg, 15); Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Diawara, 80); Anelka (Kanu, 66), Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Bould, Lukic (gk).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Calderwood (Stone, 80); Watson (Vassell, 80), Grayson (Delaney, 72), Draper, Scimeta, Wight; Joachim, Merson. Substitutes not used: Barry, Enckelman (gk).
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
Bookings: Arsenal: Dixon, Adams. Villa: Scimeca, Watson, Draper.
Man of the match: Vieira.