It had become so desperate, David Moyes himself decided to get his foot on the ball.
It was early in the second half and his team were showing nothing in attack. No tempo, no creativity, no invention. No joy.
Burnley were only marginally better, certainly more threatening but only through punts down the middle of the field.
So when Sunderland won a throw-in, the boss dashed out of his technical area, a smart quick pass into his own player. The message was clear, lift the tempo, get it moving and quick.
He soon wished he’d never bothered, baffled as he watched the ball moved ponderously back to his centre-halves in three unimaginative passes.
It rather summed up the occasion. Whether it was due to the physical exertions of the festive period, the subdued atmosphere or an inability to push themselves to the limits for a competition that, certainly at this early stage, doesn’t seem to get the pulses racing, no one was able to grab hold of this game and make it worthwhile watching.
The quality was as lacking as the endeavour, two hapless moments from the respective right-backs fresh in the memory.
When Sunderland did string together a good move, Javier Manquillo’s composure deserted him. With Jermain Defoe waiting for a back-post tap-in, the Spaniard’s cross was so poor that at first glance you assumed it must have taken a significant deflection.
It was a similar story in the second half, Burnley’s Tendaya Darikwa blazing a cross under no pressure and with team-mates gathering in the box.
For Sunderland, it was frustrating because some of their work in the first half was encouraging.
Burnley may well have had the best two chances, Andre Gray firing over from close range and Vito Mannone saving brilliantly from Sam Vokes, but it was the hosts who were controlling possession and doing most of the running.
They lined up in the same 4-4-2 that stifled Liverpool so well, but there was some refreshing ambition and fluidity to their play.
When they got the ball, Fabio Borini drifted infield and dropped in behind Adnan Januzaj.
When the Belgian received it, as he so often did, increasingly crucial to Sunderland’s attack, Borini surged ahead and created what essentially was a diamond formation. With Patrick van Aanholt flying for the byline at every opportunity and Jack Rodwell an energetic presence, there were signs of the more pro-active side Moyes wants to build in the long-term.
Another game without defeat at home is something to celebrate, too.
This may have been dismal fare for those watching, but, for the players, the signs are that, slowly but surely, they are turning the Stadium of Light into an arena where they can pick up points with regularity.
With a crucial clash with Stoke on the horizon this coming weekend, that confidence is vital. It also perhaps adds some context to Moyes’ decision not to thrown on one of his young guns.
It is tempting to say that there would have been nothing to lose, that a glimpse of young Joel Asoro might have been a reward for the supporters, but for Moyes not losing was important and he wanted experience to see it out, for his established team to start to get used to the feeling of not losing on this turf.
At the back, there was a spine that had been so badly missing at Turf Moor. Donald Love was impressive at the base of the midfield, making come important interventions when Burnley threatened to overwhelm Sunderland at the start of the second half.
For a young player to impress in such a demanding and crucial position bodes well for his future.
Jason Denayer was outstanding, a brilliant reader of the game, and Mannone reiterated why he is good enough to be a Premier League number one.
This should banish the worst demons from the Turf Moor capitulation, even if Sunderland do still look worryingly vulnerable to two very simple routines. They can still be caught out of position when long balls are launched through the middle or into the channels, and still don’t convince when clearing aerial balls into the box.
Papy Djilibodji looked panicked on a number of occasions when clearing the ball, and can’t be pushed off the ball as easily as he was when Ashley Barnes raced in on goal in the final stages. He has certainly improved from the beginning of the season but remains such a raw defender and is still very much on a learning curve.
He will have been thankful that Denayer was so diligent behind him, quick to bail out his partner when he was caught in a poor position.
Much to improve on all round, then.
Sunderland managed only four shots on target. One was a superb effort from Rodwell, Nick Pope having to make a great save to turn a stinging drive from the edge of the area over the bar. Rodwell had gone close with two very similar efforts in the first half. Januzaj had a deflected drive comfortably saved, Larsson a free-kick straight at the keeper. Borini forced a save, but it was a meek effort.
Defoe, the cause of so much anxiety on Wearside last week, never had a sniff and we have seen enough of this Sunderland side to know that if he cannot manage a shot on target in a game, Sunderland are unlikely to come out of it with a win.
Ultimately, the Black Cats just seemed to be trying to run on an empty tank.
It was symbolic that Rodwell, for so much of the game Sunderland’s brightest spark, faded from the game after the hour mark. All over the pitch were Sunderland players who seemed to have little left to give.
So that is the major challenge for Moyes this week, to ensure his players recover well and find some tempo again for the visit of a Stoke City side smarting from their FA Cup defeat at home to Championship side Wolves.
It was not a memorable day, but, at the end of it, Sunderland were still in the cup.
Who knows what might happen next.
Even the most memorable of cup stories tend to have inauspicious beginnings.