Thierry Henry's stoppage-time winner handed Martin O'Neill his first home defeat as Sunderland manager.
Arsenal fell behind after defender Per Mertesacker injured himself in trying to control the ball, with James McClean firing a shot past Wojciech Szczesny.
Mertersacker was carried off but his replacement Aaron Ramsey then directed a shot past Simon Mignolet.
But on-loan Henry, who returns to the New York Red Bulls next week, stylishly volleyed past Mignolet to grab the win.
It was a remarkable conclusion to Henry's second spell with Arsenal in the Premier League, even more so given he had come on as a substitute for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and had just the one chance.
HENRY'S SECOND ARSENAL SPELL
- The 34-year-old has scored three goals in six games
The Frenchman showed why he has scored 176 goals in 258 top-flight games in those two spells as he cleverly directed his volley past Mignolet after ghosting in between John O'Shea and Michael Turner to connect with Andrey Arshavin's cross from the left.
Just as importantly Henry's goal enabled Arsene Wenger's side to leapfrog over Chelsea into the fourth Champions League spot on goal difference.
Such a scenario had looked highly unlikely given McClean had put Sunderland ahead with just over 20 minutes to go.
McClean took advantage of Mertesacker's misfortune after the German injured his ankle as he attempted to control the ball, with the Sunderland forward blasting a shot into the corner of the net.
Mertesacker had to be carried off but within five minutes Arsenal were level after another of their substitutes Ramsey picked up the ball on the edge of the box and guided his shot past Mignolet.
Henry's late intervention might have ensured the first defeat for Sunderland under O'Neill at the Stadium of Light, but what was evident was the enormous strides the Black Cats have made under their new manager.
Sunderland expended enormous energy in trying to disrupt Arsenal's fluent style and, in McClean and Stephane Sessegnon, the home side had a couple of players with the speed and skill to always threaten Wenger's team.
Arsenal were also indebted to Szczesny who made a couple of good saves from Craig Gardner shots, while John O'Shea might have done better with a couple of second half-efforts.
In a scrappy first half, Sunderland had a strong penalty claim when the ball bounced off Mertesacker's hand.
Arsenal's best chance in the first period came from Theo Walcott, who flashed a shot past the post after good work from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Robin van Persie.
The two sides meet again in the FA Cup next Saturday, though at least Sunderland will not have to face Henry - who has now scored seven goals in 11 games against them.
- 22 Mignolet
- 02 Bardsley
- 04 Turner
- 11 Richardson Booked
- 16 O'Shea
- 07 Larsson
- 08 Gardner
- 14 Colback
- 23 McClean
- 28 Sessegnon
- 09 Campbell Booked (Ji Dong-Won - 87' )
- 20 Westwood
- 03 Bridge
- 25 Kyrgiakos
- 18 Meyler
- 27 Elmohamady
- 10 Wickham
- 17 Ji Dong-Won
- 13 Szczesny
- 03 Sagna
- 04 Mertesacker (Ramsey - 72' )
- 05 Vermaelen
- 06 Koscielny
- 07 Rosicky Booked
- 08 Arteta
- 14 Walcott (Arshavin - 86' )
- 15 Oxlade-Chamberlain (Henry - 66' )
- 17 Song
- 10 Van Persie
- 21 Fabianski
- 28 Gibbs
- 16 Ramsey
- 23 Arshavin
- 30 Benayoun
- 39 Coquelin
- 12 Henry
Live Text Commentary
Full Time The final whistle is blown by the referee.90:00 +4:20
Mikel Arteta fouled by Stephane Sessegnon, the ref awards a free kick. Bacary Sagna takes the direct free kick.90:00 +0:22
Assist on the goal came from Andrey Arshavin.90:00 +0:22 Goal scored
Goal! - Thierry Henry - Sunderland 1 - 2 Arsenal Thierry Henry scores a goal from close in to the bottom right corner of the goal. Sunderland 1-2 Arsenal.89:17
Dong-Won Ji has an effort at goal from outside the box which misses left.88:51
Robin van Persie takes a shot. Save by Simon Mignolet.85:50
Direct free kick taken by Kieran Richardson.85:50 Substitution
Substitution Fraizer Campbell leaves the field to be replaced by Dong-Won Ji.85:50 Substitution
Substitution Theo Walcott leaves the field to be replaced by Andrey Arshavin.85:50
Mikel Arteta gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Jack Colback.76:30
Free kick crossed left-footed by Kieran Richardson.76:30 Booking
Booking The referee shows Tomas Rosicky a yellow card for dissent.76:21
Thomas Vermaelen gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Fraizer Campbell.74:17
Mikel Arteta provided the assist for the goal.74:17 Goal scored
Goal! - Aaron Ramsey - Sunderland 1 - 1 Arsenal Aaron Ramsey finds the back of the net with a goal from just outside the area to the bottom left corner of the goal. Sunderland 1-1 Arsenal.74:08
Mikel Arteta takes a shot. John O'Shea gets a block in.71:35 Substitution
Substitution Aaron Ramsey on for Per Mertesacker.69:44 Goal scored
Goal! - James McClean - Sunderland 1 - 0 Arsenal Goal scored by James McClean from deep inside the penalty area to the bottom right corner of the goal. Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal.65:37 Substitution
Substitution Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain leaves the field to be replaced by Thierry Henry.63:51
Free kick awarded for a foul by Robin van Persie on Craig Gardner. Sebastian Larsson takes the free kick.
Inswinging corner taken right-footed by Sebastian Larsson played to the near post, Alex Song makes a clearance.62:42
Craig Gardner takes a shot. Brilliant save by Wojciech Szczesny.61:52
Sebastian Larsson takes the inswinging corner, clearance by Per Mertesacker.61:16
Stephane Sessegnon is caught offside. Free kick taken by Wojciech Szczesny.59:39
Sebastian Larsson takes a inswinging corner from the left by-line played to the near post. Craig Gardner takes a shot. Wojciech Szczesny makes a save.51:36
Craig Gardner takes a shot. Per Mertesacker gets a block in. Effort on goal by John O'Shea from inside the area goes harmlessly over the bar.50:29
Foul by Mikel Arteta on Craig Gardner, free kick awarded. Direct free kick taken by Sebastian Larsson.49:49
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Phillip Bardsley. Free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.48:20
Inswinging corner taken by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, clearance made by Michael Turner.47:40
Thomas Vermaelen takes a shot. Michael Turner gets a block in.46:53
Foul by Craig Gardner on Robin van Persie, free kick awarded. Robin van Persie takes the free kick.45:01
The match restarts for the second half.45:00 +1:38 Half time
Half Time It is the end of the first-half.45:00 +0:58
Corner taken by Sebastian Larsson played to the near post.43:54
Mikel Arteta has a direct shot on goal from the free kick, Michael Turner gets a block in.43:54 Booking
Booking Fraizer Campbell is given a yellow card.43:41
Unfair challenge on Robin van Persie by Fraizer Campbell results in a free kick.42:19
Handball by James McClean. Direct free kick taken by Bacary Sagna.40:25
Tomas Rosicky takes a shot. Blocked by Michael Turner.39:38
Michael Turner challenges Robin van Persie unfairly and gives away a free kick. Free kick taken by Robin van Persie.33:44
Foul by Craig Gardner on Theo Walcott, free kick awarded. Theo Walcott restarts play with the free kick.29:59
Theo Walcott produces a right-footed shot from inside the area that clears the bar.22:06
Theo Walcott has an effort at goal from deep inside the area missing to the left of the target.21:17
Free kick awarded for a foul by Laurent Koscielny on Stephane Sessegnon. Sebastian Larsson delivers the ball from the free kick right-footed from right wing, clearance by Thomas Vermaelen.17:56
The free kick is swung in left-footed by Robin van Persie, clearance by Michael Turner.17:56 Booking
Booking Booking for Kieran Richardson for unsporting behaviour.17:51
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Bacary Sagna by Kieran Richardson.16:34
James McClean fouled by Bacary Sagna, the ref awards a free kick. Direct free kick taken by Kieran Richardson.14:55
The assistant referee signals for offside against James McClean. Per Mertesacker restarts play with the free kick.13:51
Corner from the right by-line taken by Jack Colback, save by Wojciech Szczesny.13:37
Fraizer Campbell takes a shot. Blocked by Michael Turner.11:08
The referee blows for offside. Indirect free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.10:09
Sebastian Larsson takes the inswinging corner, Header from deep inside the area by James McClean goes harmlessly over the crossbar.6:24
Jack Colback takes the inswinging corner, Wojciech Szczesny makes a save.5:14
Tomas Rosicky takes a shot. Blocked by Michael Turner.4:11
Corner from the right by-line taken by Robin van Persie, Phillip Bardsley makes a clearance.3:36
Unfair challenge on Thomas Vermaelen by Fraizer Campbell results in a free kick. Mikel Arteta takes the free kick.2:08
Inswinging corner taken by Robin van Persie, Michael Turner manages to make a clearance.0:00
The game begins.
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