THERE are six matches left of 2019, so 540 minutes of football for Middlesbrough to first foot the New Year out of the Championship’s relegation zone and try to head into Jonathan Woodgate’s first winter transfer window in a healthier position than they are now.

On the evidence of Saturday’s crushing four-goal defeat to a free-flowing and attack-minded Leeds United, Boro will struggle to avoid a fall back into the bottom three, where they have been in and out of now for a few weeks.

But Middlesbrough need to somehow forget about the depressing events at Leeds, where just 14 months ago Woodgate was part of a coaching team that saw the Teessiders record a goalless draw when both teams sat joint top of the Championship. How things have changed.

Instead a threadbare squad, bereft of Republic of Ireland No 1 Darren Randolph and skipper George Friend until after Christmas among others, has to come up with a way to prove it still has what it takes to deliver the results to improve the club’s worrying situation.

As many clubs have found before, it is hard enough to hit the January sales and manage to bring in the calibre of player required at an affordable price at the best of times, never mind during a period of financial realignment and a struggle at the wrong end of the table.

As well as hoping to deliver positive results before the end of the year, Woodgate has another challenge. He has to not only persuade chairman Steve Gibson the squad needs investment – while also adhering to Financial Fair Play rules – but he has to hope there are better players wanting to join a club in a relegation battle.

That is why Middlesbrough could do with improving on a statistic of just three wins in 19 matches since Woodgate took over, and the three home dates in December against Charlton, Stoke City and Huddersfield look enormous already.

Asked if Middlesbrough will strengthen in January, he replied: “Without a doubt we need to do business in January, the chairman will be on the same page as me on that one.”

Had Middlesbrough’s recruitment been better and stronger in the summer then Woodgate’s first year in charge might not have approached the half-way point in the position they find themselves in. Anfernee Dijksteel, Marc Bola and Marcus Browne might have arrived with potential, but none with experience of higher than League One.

It has already been admitted that loans are likely to be the area of the market Middlesbrough will be looking to do the most business in, and for that to change then it could require a sale of an important player – such as prize asset Randolph – to boost the transfer kitty.

It is no secret that Middlesbrough need reinforcements, that has been known since the summer window closed and Saturday’s heavy defeat at a quality Championship team like Leeds has only heightened it. Ben Liddle, Tyrone O’Neill and Stephen Walker – all academy Under-23s players – were introduced in the second half, with Nathan Wood and Patrick Reading on the bench. Hayden Coulson would have started too had he not suffered a late injury.

Throw in the fact Paddy McNair was switched to a defensive role because it was felt his glute problem wouldn’t have lasted long in midfield, and Britt Assombalonga – who had to go off anyway after the restart – had to play for 69 minutes nursing an ankle problem, and it is clear how depleted Middlesbrough’s squad is.

“With the suspensions and injuries that we have that’s how it is but no excuses we got beat by a better, better team in Leeds,” said Woodgate when he stood on the touchline at the end of the game on Saturday.

“Leeds have improved their squad massively, they were able to bring Nketiah on, who’s a really good player. You’ve got Patrick Bamford firing on all cylinders, you’ve got Ben White at the back on loan from Arsenal, we haven’t got an on-loan player in, so that says it all really.

“We’ve lost a lot of players over the summer and replaced them with the three younger players from League One but it is what it is, it’s difficult but we keep on going, we keep on fighting, we’re positive and the players are positive for the next game, which we have to be.”

In the situation Middlesbrough are in, the likes of Liddle, O’Neill and Walker are likely to have bigger parts to play. In an ideal world Woodgate would have preferred to have given them opportunities individually with the team performing better and away from the drop zone.

Middlesbrough will never know how they might have fared at Leeds had they kept them at bay in the opening exchanges because Bielsa’s hungry side went ahead inside three minutes.

Aynsley Pears, himself relatively inexperienced at this level, didn’t deal with Bamford’s initial header properly and the former Middlesbrough striker made no mistake with his second chance to put it away.

Pears went on to have a good game after that, making numerous saves and not to be blame for the other three goals that flew in, but the damage had already been done and the opener gave Leeds the encouragement to completely control proceedings.

The only surprise was that it took until stoppage-time at the end of the first half for the second to go in. Mateusz Klich was afforded far too much space on the edge of the area to direct an effort that deflected off Daniel Ayala and drop over Pears.

The second half collapse smacked of a team in trouble and the only saving grace from it was that Middlesbrough didn’t concede more than the two they did because Pears made some fine stops to keep the scoreline down.

The third did arrive in the 69th minute when Helder Costa waltzed his way through a few Middlesbrough shirts before being allowed to fire powerfully beyond the keeper from the edge of the area.

After Woodgate could be seen raising his arms in disbelief and frustration at times, the final fourth came with 17 minutes remaining. A quickly taken short corner resulted in the brilliant Klich being picked out on the edge of the area again and he curled into the top corner in style.

The sight of Marcus Tavernier moaning at George Saville in the final seconds after the latter shot wide from distance rather than passing summed up a day to forget for Middlesbrough. It is how they respond that matters now.