IF you have suffered as much as Sunderland have over the last few seasons, a degree of fatalism is probably inevitable. If something can go wrong, it will. And if it hasn’t yet, then it’s probably just about to happen.

On the face of it, the Black Cats are well positioned with less than three months of the season to go. They’ve only lost two of their 29 league matches, have scored in every one of their League One games, and if they win their matches in hand on the teams above them, they’ll find themselves in an automatic promotion position. So far, so positive.

Yet as Marcus Browne’s 87th-minute equaliser denied them victory at Oxford United on Saturday, it was hard not to look at the expressions of despair in the home ranks and wonder if elements of the old Sunderland weren’t creeping back in.

For all that they might boast the deepest squad in League One, and have just smashed the third-tier transfer record to sign Will Grigg, this is a Sunderland side that is not quite clicking as it should. They’re finding it hard to win, as evidenced by a run of five draws from their last seven league games, and score, as highlighted by their failure to notch more than one goal in their last nine league outings.

Players who were in flying form at the start of the season are struggling to reproduce their best performances, while a batch of January signings are still feeling their way into the team. Last week’s matches against AFC Wimbledon and Oxford might have garnered four points, but faced with two of the poorest teams in the league, the Black Cats were far from convincing. Meanwhile, Luton are wiping the floor with whoever is put in front of them and Barnsley, now in second position, have won eight of their last ten games.

As Jack Ross constantly reiterates, Sunderland do not have a divine right to win the League One title. But the size and stature of the club inevitably raises expectations, and rightly or wrongly, the expectation a couple of months ago was that, with 17 games remaining, the Black Cats would be better positioned than they currently are.

“I get the edginess,” said Max Power, who is one of a number of players whose displays over the last month or so have not quite matched their early-season standards. “It’s been a tough few years and everyone is desperate to get promoted this year - we all are.

“I’ve been in these situations before with Wigan, but there is a different pressure with Sunderland, purely on fanbase and fan size.

“Can we be better? We know we can, but it’s not through a lack of trying. At the moment, we’re in that gritty part of the season where everyone is fighting for something so there’s no easy games.

“Do I try and take the positives all the time? Yeah. We’ve lost two games all season in the league. Are we drawing too many? I’d probably say yeah. If we’d got the second goal (against Oxford), we would have gone on and won. But we didn’t, so we’ll just have to swallow that ahead of three home games.”

In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game, attention was focused on the controversial build-up to Oxford’s late equaliser. Ross was adamant Jimmy Dunne had been fouled as Jerome Sinclair broke clear down the right-hand side, with the former Sunderland striker going on to square the ball for Browne to tap home.

Whether Dunne should have been much stronger when challenging Sinclair for possession close to the halfway line is a moot point, but while the incident unquestionably affected the outcome of Saturday’s game, it is something of a smokescreen when assessing the bigger picture.

Of much greater concern than Dunne’s defending is the fact that for the second game in a row, Sunderland only mustered two efforts on target against opposition from the bottom five positions in the table.

Dunne claimed his first goal in a Sunderland shirt as he powered home Grant Leadbitter’s corner shortly after the half-hour mark, but aside from the defender’s header, the visitors’ only other effort on a goal was a tame first-half shot from Aiden McGeady that Simon Eastwood easily saved.

Given the depth of Sunderland’s attacking resources, that is unacceptable, and as he fine-tunes his preparations for three home games in a week against Blackpool, Accrington Stanley and Gillingham, Ross’ key priority will be to significantly enhance his side’s goalscoring threat.

That might mean pairing Will Grigg with Charlie Wyke in a front two, and while Grigg looked understandably short of match sharpness as he made his Sunderland debut at the weekend, he can only have benefited from his 79 minutes on the field.

He looks like he would also appreciate the presence of a physical striker alongside him, but Ross also has to work out how to get the best out of his attacking midfielders. McGeady has shown flashes of inspiration in the last two matches, but George Honeyman does not look especially well suited to the ‘number ten’ role he is currently being asked to perform, Lewis Morgan is yet to fully convince following his deadline-day move from Celtic and Power looks torn between his desire to break forward and the need to fulfil his defensive duties alongside Grant Leadbitter. Clearly, some tinkering is required.

“I’ve spoken often enough about the different challenges of this season,” said Ross. “When Oxford came to our place, I thought they played a lot of good stuff. Here, they were really direct. That’s not a criticism, that’s just the way the game was.

“So it’s not easy. It lengthens the game and you’ve got to defend a lot of balls over the top and balls into your box. In the main, we did it, but in the end, it probably doesn’t really suit a few of our players.

“At home, it’s different. I think we’ve had games at home recently where we’ve dominated territory, we just need to then be more ruthless when we’re in those areas. That’s what we’ll need to do in these three games coming up.”

There were excuses for Saturday’s failure to claim maximum points, with Oxford’s attritional approach making it difficult for Sunderland’s players to play their natural game. Back on home soil, against limited opposition, there will be no such leeway if more points are squandered this week.

“There’s a responsibility on me to keep some positivity, but I also have to be realistic for the players,” said Ross. “That’s why I would say, publicly and privately, this is a big week.”