Vito Mannone not only believes history is bunk but he also considers that statistics are there to be confounded. Sunderland's goalkeeper merely shrugs when people tell him that West Bromwich Albion in 2004-05 are the only Premier League team to have escaped relegation after being bottom of the table at Christmas.

"We need to believe something different," says Mannone. "Because when you believe you can make crazy things happen. With Sunderland bottom and one point below West Ham United in 19th place but only six short of Aston Villa, currently 13th, there is genuine reason for optimism that Gus Poyet's players can survive.

The campaign is only halfway through but Wednesday's game against Villa at the Stadium of Light meets all the criteria for a classic relegation six-pointer. The same goes for Crystal Palace against Norwich City and Fulham versus West Ham.

Villa's Paul Lambert is one of only three managers in the bottom eight to have kept his job this season. Along with West Ham's Sam Allardyce and Chris Hughton of Norwich he must hope to avoid following the same path as Paolo Di Canio, Martin Jol, Ian Holloway, Steve Clarke and Malky Mackay.

With leading accountancy firms estimating the cost of relegation to be around £50m in lost revenue, it does not take too much to provoke panic in boardrooms – especially at clubs whose players lack contractual clauses automatically reducing wages in the event of a descent into the Championship – but, as QPR and Reading discovered last season, managerial change does not necessarily spell safety.

Neither does apparent mid-table security. Michael Laudrup and his slick passing Swansea City side are widely admired but from the supposed comfort of 11th place even he is looking over his shoulderwhile discussing the mini league beneath the Premier League's top eight. "It's very tight with very few points between a lot of teams," says Laudrup, well aware Swansea are separated from Sunderland by only seven points. "Three will go down and the rest will play to finish between 17th and ninth position."

Several in the danger zone would almost certainly settle for 17th. Poyet is foremost among them but Sunderland's manager has the psychological advantage of knowing his infuriatingly inconsistent, deeply transitional team are capable of beating anyone on their day.

So far Sunderland have defeated Manchester City, Newcastle and Everton in the league and Chelsea in the League Cup. If a side currently on a five-match unbeaten run can take advantage of a comparatively kind run of home fixtures – while somehow avoiding being distracted by January's two-leg League Cup semi-final against Manchester United – one of football's greatest escapes may be feasible.

While Poyet is determined that Sunderland will pass their way out of trouble with a gradually evolving brand of patient, possession football – "teams who kick and rush don't stay in the Premier League," he says – Crystal Palace's Tony Pulis and West ham's Allardyce remain wedded to more-direct percentage games.

Such tactics have worked well for both but Allardyce is paying the price for building an entire strategy around a centre-forward as injury prone as Andy Carroll and investing enormous wages on recruiting players arguably past their best, such as the £80,000-a-week Stewart Downing.

Like Allardyce, Jol depended heavily on tried and trusted experience at Fulham but Rene Meulensteen is fast discovering there are too many over-30s in a Craven Cottage squad past its collective prime.

Going to the opposite extreme, Sunderland's director of football, Roberto De Fanti, signed 13 players, 12 from overseas, the majority youthful and only five with previous Premier League experience last summer. Like Di Canio Poyet has struggled to mould such eclectic imports into a cohesive unit but incrementally the Wearsiders are improving.

Astute use of the January transfer window can inspire great leaps forward but relegation dalliances rarely make clubs attractive to ambitious players. Much may depend on how Poyet, Pulis and Allardyce use their contacts to play the loan market but, whoever ends up in charge of Cardiff City, it is hard to see too many high-calibre professionals being desperately keen to have Vincent Tan, the alarmingly autocratic owner, as their ultimate boss.

Cardiff's civil war – with Mackay the latest victim – has enhanced the survival hopes of those around them but no one can afford to rely on others to get them out of trouble. Instead Pulis and company will press all available buttons – double training sessions, warm-weather breaks (providing the chairman agrees to the funding) and assorted bonding sessions. Poyet encourages his players to eat out collectively with partners whenever possible. "It helps them feel more responsible for each other on the pitch," he says.

In a world of fine lines and the narrowest of margins Premier League status sometimes really hinges on such small, very human details.