The problem seems in part to be a recent history replete with long runs of hopelessness, writes Jonathan Wilson.
Alarming slump should ring bells at Sunderland
If any doubt lingered before, none does now: Sunderland are in the relegation fight.
On Sunday, they played for an hour against a Norwich City side reduced to 10 men by the dismissal of their goalkeeper Mark Bunn, yet could only draw.
That makes it three points from the last seven games, leaving them just four points above third-from-bottom Wigan Athletic, who have a game in hand.
Their next two games are at home to Manchester United and away to Chelsea. By the time they go to Newcastle United on April 13 for the Tyne-Wear derby, they could be in the Premier League relegation zone.
It is, frankly, a baffling position for them to be in. Theirs is not a bad side and, in Martin O'Neill, Sunderland have the manager they have yearned after for a decade.
In beating Manchester City and West Ham United earlier in the season they were excellent.
In several games they have looked the better side but have leaked soft goals and failed to turn basic control into chances and goals.
There has been, perhaps, a lack of hardness, a sloppiness, and, more recently, a dreadful lack of flair, something that has not been helped by the switch in formations from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2.
The effectiveness of the winger James McClean has been severely reduced as defenders noticed the Irishman is almost entirely left-footed.
Adam Johnson has been only fitfully effective since his move from Manchester City in August, while Stephane Sessegnon has failed to build on a promising first season in England last year - a problem apparently caused by the difficulty he had moving his family to England.
But Sunderland still should not be fighting relegation.
The problem seems in part to be a recent history replete with long runs of hopelessness: eight games without a victory at the end of last season; one point from nine games in 2010/11; 14 games without a triumph in 2009/10; one win in 13 in 2008/09; one win in 12 in 2007/08; in 2005/06 they accrued just 15 points all season; and in 2002/03 they took just a point from the final 19 matches to end with 19 points.
The traumas of those past slumps are bubbling to the surface, always ready to be reawakened.
At the Stadium of Light the belief that everything is about to go wrong never leaves.
That might be realistic, but the problem is that the instinctive negativity makes the lengthy slides all the harder to turn round.
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