IT WOULD be blinkered to blame the most chastening evening of the season on Paolo Di Canio tinkering with a winning line-up.
As collectively impressive as Sunderland were in back-to-back victories against Newcastle and Everton, they were as equally collectively abysmal at Villa Park.
Defensively, the Black Cats were more ragged than they ever were this season under Martin O’Neill; Christian Benteke torturing Carlos Cuellar to within an inch of his life on his return to the West Midlands.
In midfield, Sunderland were unforgivably guilty in their ball retention, as Aston Villa’s pressing prompted the Black Cats to continually attempt lofted crossfield passes, despite being punished for the ploy in the first half.
And up front, Sunderland were powder-puff against a side who have now gone 19 games without a clean sheet.
This was an implosion of epic proportions.
Sunderland were rabbits caught under the headlights and as the panic bells sounded, they folded in a manner reminiscent of their neighbours 48 hours earlier.
Di Canio realised as much, ordering his players over to the few remaining away fans who could still stomach the fare inside Villa Park at the final whistle and holding his hands up apologetically.
But with hindsight, the decision to replace Jack Colback and James McClean in the starting line-up was a move that back-fired dramatically on Di Canio.
By including the rusty Craig Gardner in the centre of midfield, at the expense of McClean, Sunderland were lopsided.
Seb Larsson never looked comfortable on the left and Villa knew it, the impressive Matt Lowton pressurising the Swede and bombing forward as a supplementary winger in support of interchanging widemen Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor.
Larsson had been able to dictate Sunderland’s rhythm from the middle of the park against Newcastle and Everton, but Gardner was not able to follow suit.
Too often during that first half, the Brummie seemed too eager to impress against his boyhood employers.
He tried and failed to handle the mantle of a midfield playmaker. That is a role which simply doesn’t suit the 26-year-old’s strengths.
In fairness, the soft giveaways were contagious, Sunderland’s looseness in possession seeing Di Canio grow more and more frustrated on the sidelines.
But the telegraphed pass to Larsson in the run-up to Villa’s second might as well have been accompanied by neon lights advertising it’s imminent arrival, even if Sunderland’s back-line were charitable enough to present a chasm for Weimann to run into.
As Villa’s confidence grew during a rampant second half and they realised the potential to boost their goal difference sufficiently to leapfrog Newcastle, the midfield battle was one-way traffic, despite Alfred N’Diaye manfully continuing to scrap away.
Even in the first 10 minutes of the second half, before the killer third, Sunderland were forced into mistakes by Villa’s burning hunger to press them.
And when the waves of counter-attacks came ceaselessly from an impressive Villa outfit, the Black Cats defence folded.
Phil Bardsley, brought back into the side with Gardner, was caught up the pitch for Villa’s second as he tried to overlap Adam Johnson.
In his absence, Sunderland’s back-line proved inept at practising drift defence and simply ignored the presence of the Austrian international.
But Bardsley never looked comfortable or fully fit and Villa’s inside forwards, on both flanks, were able to stretch Sunderland’s defence sufficiently to leave vast pockets of space.
Would the retention of Jack Colback in that unfamiliar right-back role have made a difference? Probably not, Sunderland were so across the board that one change in the line-up is slightly scratching at straws.
But the changes to the defence and midfield gave Villa’s searing pace on the counter-attack the opportunity to race into the gaps created by a re-organised XI.
Benteke was the chief beneficiary.
Sunderland were unable to contain the Belgian at the Stadium of Light in November, but this was on a different level altogether.
Initially, Sunderland’s gameplan was sound – Cuellar challenging for Benteke in the air, while O’Shea looked to mop up the second ball.
But as Sunderland became more and more ragged, it became a case of desperation in attempting to halt Benteke’s charge.
The defending for each goal in his 17-minute treble was indefensible.
For the first, Agbonlahor was granted the freedom of Villa Park to unleash a shot on the edge of the Sunderland area, albeit the deflection off Bardsley, who had turned his back, was fortuitous.
For the second, Benteke got above both O’Shea and Cuellar to nod into the corner, with no red and white jersey stationed on the line. And for the finale, Cuellar’s miserable evening was capped when he bafflingly decided to carry the ball out from his own territory while a pack of Villa players hunted him down. The result was inevitable.
Stephane Sessegnon’s dismissal and then David Vaughan’s inexplicable back-pass were simply the icing on the cake.
The danger for Di Canio now is that his side will simply revert to square one.
All of the confidence gleaned from the previous two games – which actually made Sunderland appear buoyant and threatening in the opening 10 minutes last night – will have been sucked out of the players.
Add to that the likely absence of Sessegnon for the run-in, and Sunderland are very much back in the dogfight, particularly with Villa now on a level playing field points-wise and benefiting from a huge confidence boost ahead of Saturday’s trip to Paul Lambert’s former club Norwich.
As Alan Pardew and Di Canio both commented after harrowing losses, the manner of the reaction is the most crucial aspect.
Sunderland certainly can’t get any worse.