DID you hear a loud metallic thud rumbling from the Riverside at 4.40pm on Saturday? That was the sound of the peseta dropping for Aitor Karanka.
The defence – whichever permutation of mismatched miscreants is wearing the shirts – is just not good enough. As a unit they are deeply, fundamentally flawed.
They lack organsation, cohesion, focus, concentration, understanding, nous and leadership. And, no matter what any given week’s short straw media muggins says, they clearly lack the ability to “learn from their mistakes.”
It appears to be a mental weakness ingrained in the DNA of this squad. How else can you explain their repeated vulnerability to the most predictable of set play situations?
Between them, from schools football onwards, in games and training, Boro’s defence must have faced tens of thousands of corners and free-kicks. And yet, as the Countdown clock ticks down and the music speeds up they look like scared set-play virgins.
Even if they have looked solid throughout, come the Twilight Zone it all starts to unravel.
Almost without fail, the red shirt rearguard get barged aside like a spindly schooboy, are easily out-jumped or stand rooted on the wrong side of the on-rushing attacker. I don’t know if they are nervous facing a flag-kick in the “red zone” but I know I am.
And judging by the jitters and tangible terror in the ground, most of the ashen-faced faithful are too. It is so predictable that few people even react to the inevitable sucker punch now. That apathetic acceptance is a worrying expression of the malaise that seems to seep into the pores of the club.
And now Aitor Karanka has realised with a start – THUD! – exactly how big a job he has on his hands.
“I can’t believe it,” he said in the immediate aftermath of the brittle blunder against Brighton. “It is the same thing again. It is not normal to play so many games when you are probably better than your opponents but you do not get the points.”
“Yes, of course I am angry,” he snapped with the first flash of frustration. “We are giving gifts to our opponents in every game. We are finding it difficult to score but other teams are finding it very easy to score against us.
“You can say sorry one or two times but in five games? It’s the same mistakes. It is not possible to continue in this way.”
He didn’t go as far as quoting Lennie Lawrence – “this defensive unit will never play together again” – but you felt he may have done if he had any option.
And you got the sense that he will have been straight off to phone his former boss Jose Mourinho and Boro’s in-house super-agent Jorge Mendes to start calling in a few favours.
When he took over from Tony Mowbray he probably thought it would just be a fine-tuning job. The new boss has spent his first few weeks watching and working, tweaking and tinkering and seeing little signs of improvement and organisation on the pitch only for the good work to be undone at the death.
He has watched all the DVDs and will know exactly what the issue is. The problem is that so have all the other managers in the Championship and they can see the weakness too and they are only too eager to exploit it.
It seems inconceivable that the players themselves can’t see the problem and rectify it.
Yet the evidence – look at the goals against column, and the timings, and the frequency with which they come from set-pieces – suggests they can’t.
At Derby, Boro bravely battled back with 10 men to level and looked solid and set for what would have been a precious point against the Championship’s form side only to spring a leak in the last minute and lose 2-1. From a corner, naturally.
When the first ball in was only half-cleared it was flicked back into the box and was nodded down between Ben Gibson, Rhys Williams and keeper Shay Given.
It happened in slow-motion. Or at least the Boro trio were reacting at that speed and, despite being fourth favourite Rams raider, striker Connor Sammon reacted first to bundle it home.
At Birmingham Boro were deservedly a goal to the good but drew the pearl handed “Typical Boro” revolver and shot themselves squarely in the foot four minutes into added time. They seemed to be cruising to an elusive away win that could have kick-started the season but had to settle for a 2-2 draw. To a corner, naturally.
City sub Kyle Bartley came heading in unchallenged at the near post from a twice taken corner to power in the header. After the game, Daniel Ayala explained sheepishly that no one knew who should be marking the man who had come off the bench. What?
Then against Brighton they had bossed the second half and piled on the pressure before again failing to deal with a routine corner. Matthew Upson showed a real steel and will to win as he just muscled through the a static crowd in the Boro box to connect at the near post and bundle home an untidy header. Yes, it was a dodgy decision and it should have been a goal-kick but you still have to defend it.
And for all the woe is me “woulda, shoulda, coulda” tales of injustice every week, the bottom line is that Boro are the architects of their own misery.
That is five points thrown away at the death in the last three games. Five points that would have put Boro in mid-table, provided the team and supporters with some momentum and belief and given the new boss some breathing space. Five points that would have been a platform for some constructive reshaping and progressive recruitment in January.
Now the boss will have to think of remedial underpinning and fire-fighting instead.
Three points above the drop zone with 20 games gone and points return flat-lining… that screams relegation battle however you look at it.
And at the current leak rate it will be very difficult to find the velocity to escape the gravity of the basement battle. As one wag on Twitter said, he knew exactly how bad the situation was once he started wondering if Titus Bramble was available.
It is that nervous magical time of the year when kids are full of anticipation and counting down the days to Christmas to see what they will get. Boro fans are in a similar situation – but more cynical as they count down the days to the January transfer window opening.
Boro will need a radical restructure then, starting at the back. Not addressing the problem in the summer probably cost Tony Mowbray his job.
If it is not solved in January it will cost Karanka any chance of salvaging the season and building the momentum to take into the next campaign.
And, of course, January is a long way off in football terms. Especially the end of it.
Before then there are plenty of other games to panic about. Between now and the window opening Boro must face shock title chasers Burnley and play-off contenders Reading at home.
And before that an archetypal “typical Boro” moment looms: Millwall. From the day Scott McDonald joined the Lions, battle-scarred Boro fans started donning their defensive armour ready for him to stab us through the heart.
Adding former human shield Nicky Bailey and the presence in the crowd of frustrating full-back Justin Hoyte (he can’t play under the terms of his loan deal) and you have potent fuel for Football’s Inevitability Drive.
Boro have won just once away from home in a calendar year. That is woeful.
Still, the traditional post-Christmas upturn is just around the corner…
If there was ever a chance for Karanka to show he can break an ancient mindset then a win at the New Den would be nice. And a clean sheet.