AS STUART Attwell drew his lips to the whistle at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday, full-time heralded the 444th minute without a Middlesbrough goal.
Emmanuel Ledesma was the last man to find the net in a Boro shirt - in the 1-0 win against Charlton Athletic - and after yet another goalless draw in the Championship this weekend, Boro boss Aitor Karanka is baffled as to why his side have not been able to trouble the scoreboard.
The case for the defence has been proven, thankfully. Boro’s backline has been breached just four times since they lost to Brighton and Hove Albion before Christmas. Defensive errors that had undermined solid performances in earlier games this season have been ironed out by Karanka’s effective training ground methods which have in turn bred a new confidence on the pitch.
But the goals have dried up. Saturday’s stalemate against Blackburn followed a blank at Doncaster Rovers a week before which was preceded by a 0-0 at Wigan Athletic.
Middlesbrough’s run of four games without a goal is a joint-worst Championship record. Another blank, and they’d be the first team in the second tier to go five games without scoring. With 16 games of the season remaining, Karanka’s side need to be clicking in order to stand any chance of reaching the play-offs.
In recent seasons, Boro have shared the goals around the squad. Notwithstanding Marvin Emnes’ fine season in 2011-12 where he scored the majority of his side’s goals in a lightning start to the season, the Teessiders have not been able to call on a talisman to provide their firepower.
Albert Adomah is the side’s top scorer on nine goals, followed by Muzzy Carayol on seven, captain Grant Leadbitter on six, Kei Kamara on four, Ledesma and Daniel Ayala on three, and George Friend with two.
Middlesbrough’s 41 goals this season is not to be sniffed at, a statistic which places them the division’s ninth top scorers, while they average 4.7 shots on target in data provided to The Northern Echo by statisticians WhoScored.com, comfortably one of the best in the division. Shot shy they are certainly not.
But when you look at each player individually, Boro’s forwards are not hitting the target as much as other strikers in the league.
Three of the league’s top scorers - David McGoldrick, Charlie Austin and Danny Ings - all average just shy of four shots per game.
The only Boro player that gets anywhere near that is Kei Kamara with 2.4 shots per game. He has not started for Karanka’s side since returning from a knee injury after Christmas.
Curtis Main, meanwhile, who Karanka has preferred to Kamara as his lone striker in Boro’s 4-2-3-1 formation, has only mustered 1.1 shots per game in a campaign which has brought one goal.
Is Boro’s profligacy of late a by-product of their new-found defensive stoicism? A tightening at the back that favours caution over attacking football?
Karanka has made attacking a top priority in training. If hard work on the Rockliffe Park pitches can end their wretched defensive form, it will work at the other end.
“We had a lot of chances to score,” said the manager. “Last week against Doncaster I was very very sad and very angry with the team but in the first half we played very well and had a lot of chances, but we couldn’t score,” said Karanka at the weekend.
“We need to try to concentrate more and cut out mistakes in front of goal. We need to work on it more in training. We had three or four chances in the first half and many corners.
“I’m not happy because we didn’t win the game, but I am proud of the team because they did all the things that I asked them to do. We need to keep playing like this and hopefully the goals will come.
“It's frustrating for me. We didn't play well against Doncaster and didn't deserve to win against Wigan, but we had a lot chances starting from the first few minutes - and didn't score. That’s football, though.”
The tide is slowly turning for the Teessiders, with the January transfer window an opportunity for Karanka to augment his attacking roster.
The sight of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Emnes both exiting Boro, therefore, may appear baffling on the surface, but in Danny Graham and Lee Tomlin, Karanka has signed his number nine and a number ten who he expects to slot into his team.
Boro’s recent problems come down to service to their strikers. Half of their shots come from outside the box, while a measly five per cent come from inside the six yard area. Poachers like Graham thrive on the service from out wide - the likes of Carayol and Adomah provide natural width and should give Graham - who scored 22 goals in his last Championship season - the service he needs.
Meanwhile, Tomlin, who serves the third of his three-match suspension picked up while a Peterborough player, is expected to play at the front of a midfield three in the traditional number 10 role, a position from which he has scored five in 15 Posh games this season.
The last 444 minutes may not have been happy viewing for Middlesbrough fans - but if Karanka can work his magic back on the training ground like he did with the defence - complete with Graham and Tomlin hitting the ground running - they might not have to wait much longer for the net to bulge again.
MIDDLESBROUGH'S MISFIRING STRIKERS
1.8 shots per game
1.9 shots per game
2.4 shots per game
2.2 shots per game
1.1 shots per game
0.5 shots per game
THE BEST OF THE REST
Danny Ings (Burnley)
3.6 shots per game
David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town)
3.9 shots per game
Charlie Austin (QPR)
3.7 shots per game
Statistical data provided by WhoScored.com