Sunderland’s hand has never been weaker at this stage of the season ... but what lessons can be learned from the previous great escapes?

Sunderland boss David Moyes and Paul Bracewell face a fight to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.

Sunderland boss David Moyes and Paul Bracewell face a fight to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.

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Would this be Sunderland’s greatest ever escape?

This is a drill the Wearside faithful know well, the anxiety and the fear, the surge from optimism to pessimism and all the way back again.

Nothing summed that up better than the lurch from an exhilarating 4-0 win at Selhurst Park, to the same scoreline in Southampton’s favour on home turf just a week later.

So how does the land lie for the ‘survival specialists’ this season? Are they stronger, or weaker, than at this point in previous campaigns?

2012-13

The Table: Sunderland never had a stronger hand at this stage of the season than their first escape.

On this day in 2014 they were sitting comfortably in mid-table, six points clear of the drop on 29.

The three teams who would eventually be relegated were at a safe distance. QPR 12 points behind, Wigan eight, Reading six.

It all changed with a wretched run of form for the Black Cats, coinciding with a slight upturn for Wigan.

Ultimately, their early season points haul was enough to keep them afloat, but it was a mess they never should have get themselves into.

29 points now and Sunderland would be on the brink of safety.

The Manager: Di Canio landed two results that never looked like coming weeks previous, the drubbing of Newcastle and the narrow win over Everton.

They didn’t win again, destroyed by Aston Villa and getting a point from Southampton and Stoke.

The Italian increased Sunderland’s points lead over Wigan from one to three in his time, but looking back it could have gone the other way had Wigan not been distracted by the FA Cup.

The Squad: Similar to so many recent seasons, it was a squad lacking pace for the most part.

The defence was solid, Simon Mignolet in the form of his life. Danny Rose and Phil Bardsley were a good pairing at full-back, while Stephane Sessegnon offered thrust. All round, the current class are probably weaker.

2013-14

The Table: This was the greatest of escapes so far, but at this point the table looked far better, Sunderland were 18th with 24 points, in trouble but not staring down the barrel as they would be just weeks later.

They had a four point advantage on Fulham and two on Cardiff below them, while Norwich, one point above, were the team they overhauled. In the end they did it comfortably, five points clear of the Canaries.

The Manager: Gus Poyet’s stock was so high at the end of this season, the Great Escape and League Cup run fresh in the memory.

The football was good, the spirit excellent, the defence stable. A miracle, in his own words. Perhaps what he had over David Moyes is a very clear idea, at this stage of his tenure at least, of how he wanted the side to play.

The Squad: Equally important, he had players who could carry out that vision.

He didn’t sign Ki or Borini, but both fitted into his 4-3-3.

Marcos Alonso was an inspired loan addition in January, while the joker in the pack was Connor Wickham, recalled from loan to enjoy the one hot streak of his Wearside career. The core of a very good side was there.

2014-15

The Table: At this stage safety still looked likely, Sunderland 15th on 24 points. Hull, Burnley and QPR, who all went down, were below them.

The collapse was spectacular, culminating in a first-half disaster against Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa.

The Managers: Ultimately it was a mess, Poyet trying to play out from the back with defenders completely incapable.

Dick Advocaat went back-to-basics in the extreme, and aside from largely wasting Jermain Defoe it did the job.

The squad was badly imbalanced, having spent too much time chasing Fabio Borini they were left with the likes of Ricky Alvarez, while Wickham returned to his average form. This was perhaps the worst squad of the lot.

2015-16:

The Table: Villa were done for, but Newcastle and Norwich were just a point ahead and very much in reach.

The Manager: The survival specialist, absolutely full of belief and clarity in how he would get Sunderland out of the mire. Took longer than expected but he managed.

The Squad: Three January additions playing superbly, with Younes Kaboul and Yann M’Vila finding superb form.

The spine of this side was superb, add Jordan Pickford and they could have challenged the top half this season.

What we’ve learned

Contrary to popular belief that one side always falls into trouble, Sunderland’s great escapes show that the teams that go down are invariably deep in bother by this stage of the season.

Sunderland have never been this far adrift, but the likes of Leicester and Boro are well within reach.

All round the squad is weaker and they have not had the same January boost as in previous years, but the big difference is Jermain Defoe scoring more goals than ever.

Even Big Sam took a while to get him at his best. Sunderland’s fixture list also offers hope, with seven of the current bottom half still to play.

It is wins against those teams that have saved them in years gone by, and it could well be again.

The big difference, of course, is that with David Moyes firmly in situ, they will not benefit from a new manager bounce.

Might that stability and calm be to their benefit as other sides continue to slide, however?