Almost exactly five years after he was sacked by Newcastle United, Sam Allardyce endured another grim afternoon in the north-east, where his West Ham players were comprehensively outplayed by a much improved Sunderland.

Strangely bereft of adrenaline and ambition, Allardyce's defensively vulnerable, shot-shy side were perhaps pining for the injured Andy Carroll. If their defence had few answers to the persistently awkward questions posed by the outstanding David Vaughan and excellent Stéphane Sessègnon, West Ham's attack made Titus Bramble appear a top-class central defender. Indeed, with Joe Cole largely isolated, Kevin Nolan experiencing a bad day at the office and Carlton Cole utterly ineffective, Bramble probably became sufficiently bored to begin wishing he had been duelling with his old pal Carroll.

"We didn't defend correctly, we didn't have the right appetite, we didn't pass the ball well," said Allardyce, who was forced to replace the hamstrung James Collins with James Tomkins early on. "It was an all-round performance that's extremely difficult for me to accept. We were poor in all departments. The one player who did alright was Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal, the rest of the team under-performed. The drop in performance from drawing with Manchester United in the FA Cup last week was staggering. It's a concern."

Sebastian Larsson has not had the best of seasons for Sunderland but, by making the very most of a half-chance created by an encouragingly revived Adam Johnson's cross and Alou Diarra's partial clearance, the Sweden international provided an early reminder of his quality. Demonstrating seamless control, Larsson brought the ball down around 20 yards from goal. After taking a millisecond to assess his options, he transferred it on to his left foot and unleashed an unstoppable, high velocity half-volley that arrowed inexorably towards the top corner.

It was a fully deserved lead. Partly thanks to Vaughan's stellar promptings from central midfield, virtually all the inventive, incisive stuff came from Martin O'Neill's team, with West Ham often looking as if their brains had frozen up in sympathy with the arctic Wearside weather whipping in from Russia's steppes.

Although the-ever imaginative Joe Cole sporadically raised the visiting tone a little, his team-mates struggled to give him the ball. The moment when, to general delight, Johnson sold the usually ultra-streetwise Nolan a dummy seemed emblematic of mounting Hammers' woes that deepened early in the second half.

O'Neill's teams have typically excelled on the counterattack and it was from such a break that Johnson scored the second. The excellent Sessègnon raced upfield, eventually squaring to James McClean, whose shot was diverted by Jaaskelainen. Dan Potts then fluffed an ideal chance to clear the danger, allowing Steven Fletcher to see an effort blocked by Guy Demel. Pouncing on the rebound, Johnson hooked the ball home from close range.

With less than an hour gone Allardyce had used all three of his substitutes, the final introduction replacing Carlton Cole with the debutant Marouane Chamakh. Unmoved, Vaughan and company continued to highlight opposing defensive deficiencies, which were fully emphasised when Jaaskelainen saved Jack Colback's shot and then watched his back line stand off politely as, not content with containing Joe Cole, Sunderland's left-back re-connected with the rebound, hitting the post this time.

Colback was having a very good game and his through ball resulted in Fletcher dinking the ball beyond West Ham's goalkeeper, only for celebrations to be curtailed by a linesman's flag signalling a fractional offside. No matter; McClean soon made it three, sidefooting an angled shot past Jaaskelainen after another adroit break involving Johnson and Sessègnon.

Johnson departed to warm applause as he made way for Alfred N'Diaye, O'Neill's £4m buy from Bursaspor. With his first touch in a Sunderland shirt, N'Diaye shot narrowly wide, thereby prompting yet another bout of ferocious gum chewing on Allardyce's part.

O'Neill, meanwhile, spent the afternoon indulging in his trademark Zebedee-style celebratory jumps, rising remarkably high in the air for a man of 60. His mood proved equally buoyant. "We played very well," he said. "But we're still in the bottom half of the table so it was an important win."