ONE team was vibrant, exciting, dangerous and full of attacking intent which earned its rewards, while the other lacked all those things and deserved everything that came its way.

Middlesbrough might have started the day seven points and plenty of places above their opponents, but there only one team looked capable of securing an automatic promotion place this season and that was Aston Villa.

No wonder Tony Pulis, the Boro boss, was quick to highlight how Villa’s options in the final third of the field are of the sort he would love to bring to the Riverside Stadium in January. Getting them to play in that manner would be the next challenge.

Middlesbrough have shown they possess Championship quality in their ranks, they have spent time at the top of the table already and even after a 3-0 defeat to the Villans they remain third.

That is no disgrace for a group of players Pulis has regularly suggested – and he was happy to again after the third loss of the campaign – didn’t get the extra help he had wanted during the summer.

That is why there is such a focus on what happens in January, when it is obvious there will be a move for the forwards he feels can improve a squad that had shown it can defend well enough until its surrender to Villa.

Villa had Yannick Bolasie, Jack Grealish and John McGinn causing all sorts of problems for Middlesbrough’s rear guard, with the impressive England Under-21 international Tammy Abraham enhancing his rising reputation too.

“We know we need to improve and we will try in the window to get that sorted out to give us more of what Villa have up front,” said Pulis. “They have pace, power and experience. We know what we need, what we have to get and we will do our damndest to try to get.

“I don’t want to criticise these lads I have here because they have been fantastic. But we have four or five games before the window opens and we have to make sure this team sticks together to get as many points as we can before then.

“We know what we want, we’ve been talking about it all the way through. If you look at the Villa team, with the pace and the power on the turnover and the quality and experience they’ve got, we want a little bit of that. That’s what the team needs.”

Given how Middlesbrough have performed to stay in the mix for a top two spot, the heavy loss to Villa does not mean Pulis and his players aren’t capable of staying in and around the top two. They are.

Knowing how close they are to becoming a real force in the division is what is bugging the manager, and it is likely to be bugging chairman Steve Gibson too. Pulis is an experienced boss and has a reputation for focusing on the defence, and yet his comments are always centred on what his team needs to improve going forward.

Middlesbrough will not go up if they regularly repeat the manner of the display against Aston Villa. Too many players wanted extra time on the ball, were sloppy with the final pass and they struggled to test goalkeeper Orjan Nyland.

Uncharacteristically for Middlesbrough, what made things worse was how poorly Pulis’ team defended. Villa scored three and could easily have had more, such was the way they attacked and cut the home side open.

Soon after George Friend had got away with tripping Tammy Abraham in the penalty area, Middlesbrough found themselves behind after a poorly defended corner in the 20th minute.

Grealish’s delivery was misjudged by goalkeeper Darren Randolph. Danny Batth lost James Chester, who went into a battle with Dael Fry before finishing from close range to give Villa the lead.

Middlesbrough pushed in the latter stages of the first half without seriously testing the goalkeeper, and the nearest they came was when Jordan Hugill shook the crossbar with ten minutes to go. By that time Villa were already two up.

Bolasie was afforded far too much space in the final third after a corner had been broken down, and the winger’s low delivery into the six-yard box was converted over the line by Abraham, who had struck his 11th of the season.

To compound Middlesbrough’s misery the third arrived with seven minutes remaining and Randolph was at fault again. He had just saved from Abraham but only helped Glenn Whelan’s long-range effort in off his left and post.

Pulis said: “On the day we weren’t good enough, not bright enough. The difference against these teams, every player has to be on it. They were better than us. Full stop.”