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Boro lack any kind of a cutting edge as their goalless run approaches the nine-hour mark
Full-time:Watford 1 Middlesbrough 0
YOU can do a lot of things in eight-and-three-quarter hours. Fly from Manchester to New York perhaps. Or drive from London to Edinburgh. If you skipped all the adverts, you could even watch an entire series of Downton Abbey.
What you can't do if you're Middlesbrough, however, is score a goal, and after failing to find the net in just three of the opening 26 matches of the season, the Teessiders have now gone five straight games without troubling the scorers.
It is 524 minutes since Emmanuel Ledesma fired in a long-range winner against Charlton, the longest barren run in the Football League and a sequence that has surely scuppered any lingering hopes of making the play-offs.
“If you don't score goals, then it is difficult to win,” said Aitor Karanka, when asked to reflect on his side's latest failure at Watford. Difficult? How about downright impossible, as the league table now reflects.
From ninth after the Charlton victory, when hopes of promotion were burning bright, to 14th position five games later, eight points adrift of the top six. Boro's traditional post-Christmas wobble might have been delayed this season, but it has arrived nonetheless and proved as damaging as ever.
A lack of goals is clearly the main contributory factor, and whereas the goalless draw with Blackburn seven days earlier had seen Boro create a host of chances that went begging, Saturday's defeat at Vicarage Road featured barely an opportunity worthy of the name.
An offside flag cut short Jonathan Woodgate's celebrations after the defender had headed home Grant Leadbitter's free-kick shortly before the interval, with replays suggesting the decision was borderline at best.
Beyond that, however, Watford goalkeeper Jonathan Bond was barely tested until Danny Graham headed into his arms in stoppage time.
Boro enjoyed plenty of possession, and delivered a succession of crosses from the flanks. Watford's towering central defender Marco Cassetti played well, but he will not enjoy many more leisurely afternoons.
“It's not like we're a side that aren't creating anything,” said Graham, whose personal record stands at one goal from 23 matches this season. “We're definitely putting crosses into the box, it's just that maybe the runs need to be timed a bit better or someone needs to be coming round the back at the right time.
“That's something we'll have to work on. We've got the foundations with a solid back four, we just need a bit of luck in front of goal and hopefully we can have a good end to the season. But that's five games we haven't scored in now, and we need to sort that out.”
Given that he is still finding his feet after leaving Hull City on transfer-deadline day, it would be wrong to pin too much blame for Boro's barren run on to Graham's shoulders. He looks a better bet for a goal than either Curtis Main or Kei Kamara at the moment, and while Lukas Jutkiewicz has now scored two goals in his last three games for Bolton, he was hardly prolific in a Boro shirt this season either.
The problem appears to be more systemic, and is surely explained, at least in part, by Aitor Karanka's preference for two holding midfielders and current insistence on playing Grant Leadbitter in the hole behind Graham.
With Dean Whitehead and Nathaniel Chalobah sitting, two of Boro's five midfielders are effectively redundant in an attacking sense.
Leadbitter has plenty of qualities, but goalscoring isn't one of them, and neither is breaking beyond a centre-forward to try to get behind an opposition back four.
As a result, Graham finds himself extremely isolated and so much of Boro's attacking is dependent on the performance of the two wide players. On Saturday, Emmanuel Ledesma was wretched, and while Karanka acknowledged as much by replacing him at half-time, it was always going to be asking a lot for Albert Adomah and Mustapha Carayol to effectively unlock the Watford defence on their own in the second half.
“It is a worry that we are not scoring,” admitted Karanka. “Sometimes, it can be luck, but sometimes it is because you don't do what you have to to score goals. If you don't do the right work, it becomes more difficult.
“In this game, and in the game against Doncaster (when they drew 0-0), we didn't do the good things that we need to do. We played very well in the last game against Blackburn and had a lot of chances. I thought we were unlucky, but here and in some other games, I wouldn't like to say we were unlucky.”
With neither defence coming under much pressure at all before the break, a fourth successive goalless draw looked likely at the interval, but two errors from Ben Gibson effectively handed the points to Watford on a plate.
Four minutes into the second half, the defender found himself on the wrong side of Fernando Forestieri in the penalty area, and instead of shepherding the Italian to the byline, he chopped him down with a reckless sliding tackle.
Troy Deeney stepped up to covert his 14th goal of the season, but the game looked to have tilted back in Middlesbrough's favour when Samba Diakite was rightly dismissed three minutes later for a crude over-the-ball lunge at Dean Whitehead.
Had it remained 11-against-ten, the visitors would have had every chance of hauling themselves level. As it was, however, they ceded their man advantage within five minutes as Gibson also saw red.
Already booked for a first-half foul on Deeney, Gibson senselessly tried to prevent Bond from clearing the ball downfield. It was a soft way to be sent off, but the laws of interference are pretty clear and referee Oliver Langford was right to brandish a second yellow card.
“We were losing,” said Karanka. “But for a little while, we had one man more. At that stage, with the substitutes I still had to make, I thought we could change the team to take advantage of the extra player. But five minutes later, Ben was sent off and the game became much more difficult.
“He made a mistake. When you already have one yellow card, you can't do something like that. You need to be more intelligent. It was a mistake, and we lost the game because of the mistakes we made.”
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