YOU can blame Gus Poyet for starting with Adam Johnson on the bench.
You can blame Howard Webb for his inability to distinguish what is and isn’t a penalty for Sunderland.
You can blame Poyet for using three centre-halves at home.
You can equally blame those defenders for their constant inability to defend set-pieces throughout this sorry season after the tally extended to 15 last night. But there is a bottom line here.
Regardless of formations, selections or ref’s decisions, they don’t find themselves staring down the barrel towards the Championship by fluke. They have just not been good enough.
Three Stadium of Light wins all season, a pathetic tally of of just 14 home goals and a measly total of six victories in total.
Sunderland aren’t in this position by fluke. Despite the rousing efforts in a Johnson-inspired late comeback, it couldn’t mask the clear shortcomings which have now taken the Black Cats from relegation probabilities to firm favourites.
The club is now on the verge of paying the ultimate price for three years of transfer blunders and a managerial merry-go-round.
Five men in the dug-out in the space of two-and-a-half years is a recipe for disaster.
Even worse, star performers and even solid professionals have been sold and not adequately replaced. More than £30m alone has been invested in a failed bid to replace Darren Bent’s goal contribution.
The calamitous recruitment drive from last summer now looks like being the final push which Sunderland needed to tip them over the cliff.
It was telling afterwards that Poyet made a point of saying Sunderland’s performance was a fair reflection of his side.
It was the closest the Uruguayan could come to admitting that the players he inherited were sub-standard, albeit his January signings have hardly made the required immediate impact.
Nevertheless, Poyet left himself open to criticism by starting with Johnson on the bench.
Fair enough, the winger is not a natural fit for a 5-3-2 formation and prior to his impressive late cameo at Liverpool, he had only produced sporadic flickers since winning the Premier League Player of the Month for January.
But Johnson is still Sunderland’s top scorer and their most creative player. He certainly showed what they were missing when he entered the fray after West Ham’s second.
Suddenly, there was a shining light in red and white - invention, composure and an elegant finish for his 10th of the season.
The problem was Johnson was having to do things on his tod. Sunderland’s players were waiting for the England international to conjure something out of nothing, rather than being pro-active in offering him an outlet.
But that is the side-effect which stems from playing for a side drained of confidence. No one wants to take responsibility. Prior to Johnson’s introduction, they had been predominantly reliant on hit and hope.
There was no lack of endeavor or determination. Quality and creativity were by far the biggest deficiencies. For the most part, that has been the story of the season.
Lee Cattermole and Phil Bardsley went closest to finding the net for Sunderland during the first half. It said it all.
It was understandable why Poyet decided to persist with five at the back after the bright performance at Liverpool, yet it left defenders being shoehorned into the attacking roles - Cattermole pushed further forward than usual and Bardsley almost operating as a right winger.
The front two continually looked for balls over the top and in behind, but there wasn’t the confidence to play those risky passes.
There were big gaps in the middle of the park too, with Ki Sung-Yueng drifting to the left flank to make up for Marcos Alonso’s dallying in getting forward.
And even though there were three centre-halves on the field, it didn’t equate to any improvement in Sunderland’s defending from set pieces.
Andy Carroll exposed John O’Shea for the ninth-minute opener from a running jump, albeit a blocker on the former Newcastle United man might have been handy.Carroll dominated O’Shea throughout, while Vergini had the air of Nyron Nosworthy with his chronic unpredictability.
The second goal wasn’t any prettier as Sunderland allowed West Ham to win the second ball from a hoof forward. Was that ploy such a surprise?
In the minutes after Mohamed Diame’s deflected effort, West Ham found space and retained possession on the deck. It was that bad.
But as Johnson began to exert more of an influence, Sunderland could easily have come away with a point or even three, with Connor Wickham and Nacho Scocco both spurning glorious chances. It was a rousing – if ultimately fruitless – finale.
Had Sunderland boasted a splash of fortune in that last 25 minutes – or in the game as a whole – they could easily have emerged victorious.
Referee Webb’s colour blindness against red and white stripes continued as he somehow missed Kevin Nolan’s blatant handball.
If the chance to net an immediate equaliser after Carroll’s opener had fallen to anyone other than Cattermole too, it could have been a very different story.
But luck is not to blame for Sunderland’s league position, which now looks utterly dire.
Four points adrift of safety ahead of back-to-back games against top six outfits Spurs, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea does not make for a pretty picture.
Yes, three of the last four games are at home to Cardiff, Swansea and West Brom, but Sunderland may already be too far adrift by then to make those fixtures relevant.
Considering their fortunes against the bottom half too, there is precious little guarantee that Sunderland will beat even one of them.
Last night was THE make-or-break game. The latter nudges Sunderland far, far closer to the Premier trapdoor.