Nobody at Sunderland really wants to sack Gus Poyet. There is a genuine desire for the stability and long-term planning you will never achieve by changing managers every 18 months. The problem, after this catastrophic and humiliating home defeat, is that owner Ellis Short may feel he has no alternative.
Short is a ruthless man, as men as wealthy as he tend to be. He sacked Martin O'Neill - albeit harshly given his managerial pedigree - at a similar stage of the season because he panicked. Relegation and the spectre of financial implosion have a tendency to do that to owners.
Sunderland have won just one league game this year, have scored one goal in their last six games and have not played well for weeks, grinding out enough draws to avoid dropping into the bottom three but never looking likely to pull clear of danger. They are on a downward trajectory and Short may well have to look for his seventh manager in his sixth year as owner. Short and director of football Lee Congerton do not want to go down that route if they can avoid it, but this was so bad, so limp, so disorganised, they could be forced to.
Poyet must convince them somehow that, like last season, he can bring buoyancy to a sinking ship. In defence of the Uruguayan, Sunderland have not been in the bottom three all season and they are still four points clear of the drop zone. They have, in the main, been well-organised and difficult to beat, but this was dire enough to be considered a sackable offence. Sunderland fans, however, have not chanted for Poyet's head. That could be crucial. To put this defeat into some sort of context, Aston Villa had scored four goals away from home in the league all season before their trip to Wearside, where they scored four before half-time. Sunderland's defence resembled a chocolate bar on a radiator in that it looked solid at the start, but as soon as the heat increased, it melted.
Tim Sherwood - appointed manager when Villa's American owner Randy Lerner began to get twitchy about relegation last month - had clearly drilled his team to use their pace to counter-attack, and it was devastating. Leandro Bacuna was superb as a marauding right-back, terrorising the isolated Patrick van Aanholt with his speed from deep positions. He also created the first goal, picking out the unmarked Christian Benteke for a well-controlled finish, and he also got an assist for the Belgian's second and Villa's fourth with an accurate far-post cross.
In between this, there were two goals for Gabriel Agbonlahor, who punished a horrific misjudgement from John O'Shea to poke the ball through Costel Pantilimon's legs and then dribbled through the middle of a shambolic Sunderland defence to slot the ball home.
Had Scott Sinclair not missed the target from six yards after another rampaging run and cross from Bacuna, Villa would have scored five goals in just 45 minutes. Ultimately, the game was finished as a contest by half-time, and although Sunderland regained some composure in the second half, their pride has been battered.
Poyet has plenty of repair work to do, both in terms of the players' confidence and the board's confidence in him.