A FURIOUS Aitor Karanka accused some of his Middlesbrough players of “thinking they are better than they are” after a fifth successive game without a goal resulted in a 1-0 defeat at Watford.
It is now almost nine hours since Boro found the net, and while they were the better side for large periods at Vicarage Road, their lack of goalscoring success has made a huge dent in their play-off ambitions.
The Teessiders are eight points adrift of the play-off places despite having played a game more than five of the sides in the top six, and have picked up just three points from their last five matches.
They were unlucky not to score in their most recent home game against Blackburn, when a succession of chances somehow went begging.
However, there was nothing unfortunate about their latest blank, and having mounted a staunch of his players on a number of occasions in the last month, Karanka adopted a much less conciliatory tone at the weekend.
Questioning his players' mental approach, the Spaniard accused some of his squad of becoming complacent after embarking on a six-game unbeaten run around the turn of the year.
“I don't think this is about confidence,” said Karanka. “I think it's about work, and maybe some players starting to think now that they are better than they are.
“One month ago, the players were scoring and doing things very well. Now, maybe they think they are better than they are and that is not happening any more.
“We need to recover the right attitude and be more humble. Maybe some people have been getting ahead of themselves.
“Maybe we have been thinking we are better than we are. We won five games and maybe some people thought they had achieved something with that. They hadn't.”
Karanka intends to hold a series of team meetings this week in which he will drill home the need to get back to basics as Boro look to rediscover their winning touch when they host Leeds United in a lunchtime kick-off on Saturday.
A month ago, the former Real Madrid assistant felt his players were buying into the philosophy he was attempting to instil and focusing on ensuring their individual performances were up to scratch.
Suddenly, however, the failings of the first half of the season are returning, with individual errors proving costly once more.
Ben Gibson was the chief culprit at the weekend as he conceded a penalty before being dismissed for two bookings, but he was hardly the only player who failed to live up to his billing in a hugely disappointing display.
“I think we need to sit down together and discuss a few things,” said Karanka. “We need to be more humble and play like we played one month ago.
“That was when we were playing well, but this was a terrible game. I thought we played well last weekend, but we were bad against Doncaster and then bad again here. We need to recover our form.
“I'm disappointed because this was a game that we had to win. We had the game under control in the first 30 minutes, but after that, I don't really know what happened.
“We lost the game, lost a player and lost our identity. We lost a lot of things. We had a lot of possession, but that is not what wins the games.”
Karanka felt the decision to award a penalty for Gibson's foul on Fernando Forestieri was the right one, and also refused to criticise Oliver Langford's dismissal of the defender for a first-half foul and a second-half attempt to prevent goalkeeper Jonathan Bond from clearing the ball.
Boro had a goal disallowed when an offside flag ruled out Jonathan Woodgate's header from a Grant Leadbitter free-kick, but while the decision was borderline, Karanka admitted his side had not done enough to win the game.
“I thought the penalty was clear and I couldn't see the offside,” he said. “But we made mistakes with our defending and mistakes with our attacking, and if you do that, it is impossible to win a game.”