ONE of Neil Warnock’s biggest criticisms of his Middlesbrough squad is that he claims he does not know what they are going to produce from one game to the next. Perhaps he should have been watching them all season then. Far from being mercurially inconsistent, Boro’s biggest failing this term is that it has never taken them long to revert to type.

It is the impressive performances that have been the outliers – West Brom, Preston, Stoke, Millwall – and it is far from coincidental that they have all come away from the Riverside. On home turf, with the possible exception of the FA Cup tie with Tottenham, Boro have reliably and repeatedly fallen flat.

Even accounting for the lengthy hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is remarkable that the Teessiders have not won a home game since Boxing Day. After Saturday’s latest capitulation at the hands of a Bristol City side who lost their manager just over a week ago because their season was adjudged to be drifting to a meaningless end, it is now nine games and counting in the wait for a Championship home success.

Boro have picked up four points from a possible 27 in that time and conceded 15 goals. Prior to Britt Assombalonga’s 82nd-minute consolation at the weekend, they had gone more than five hours without finding the net in a home game. They have lost to a Luton side that had gone 12 away games without a win before travelling to the North-East, a QPR team that had previously lost three on the bounce and now a Bristol City side that had claimed one win from their previous ten matches as their promotion hopes all-but-disappeared. So much for being impossible to predict.

Why are Boro so poor in their own stadium? The influence of the supporters cannot really be a factor, as results have been similar whether achieved in front of crowds edging towards 30,000 or in a stadium devoid of fans. Statistics show that away wins have become more likely since football was ushered behind-closed-doors, but Boro had already embraced that trend long before the turnstiles were padlocked shut.

Instead, the best explanation for the Teessiders’ struggles on their own turf is their inability to deal with teams who play on the counter-attack, with pacy, mobile forwards interchanging at speed and pulling the home side’s defenders out of position.

Put this Boro team into a battle, as was the case at the Den last week, and they rarely crumble. The heart is there, along with the physical attributes needed to match an opposition that look to hurl long balls into the box. In Warnock’s first game in charge, Boro went toe-to-toe with Stoke and came out on top. Ask them to scrap, and they can generally cope.

The problems come when they find themselves in possession and are asked to do something with the ball by a team that sits off them. Then, when an attacking move invariably breaks down, Boro’s defenders find themselves overrun and unable to cope with any counter-attacking fluidity that is posited against them.

In Jonny Howson, George Friend, Ryan Shotton and Adam Clayton, Boro boast experienced defensive players who never shirk a challenge. However, their lack of pace and mobility is a chronic weakness that tends to be exposed by visiting teams at the Riverside.

It was the primary failing in the final game under Jonathan Woodgate, when Rhian Brewster, Andre Ayew and Aldo Kalulu ran riot for Swansea, and it was an obvious flaw again at the weekend as Andreas Weimann pulled the strings for a Bristol City side that boasted the pacey Nakhi Wells and the powerful Famara Diedhiou in attack.

Every time Bristol City swept forward from a deep-lying position, they looked capable of scoring. Every time Boro’s defenders were forced onto the back foot, they looked disorganized and vulnerable.

Six minutes in, and the entire Boro defence stood off Wells as he curled a sumptuous strike into the top corner. Towards the end of the first half, Bristol City claimed the ball from a Middlesbrough corner, and within the space of three passes they had swept the length of the pitch to enable Jamie Paterson to lash past Dejan Stojanovic from an acute angle.

“You’ve got to hope that you’ve got players who can read situations, and then it doesn’t materialise into a breakaway,” admitted Warnock. “You’ve got to have people talking on the pitch. They scored their second goal from our corner, and that’s scandalous at this level.”

There was more in the second half, with Weimann threading a pass past a flummoxed Dael Fry to enable Wells to gallop clear and stab home his second.

“If you concede goals and shoot yourself in the foot, you’re never going to play with confidence,” added Warnock. “I feel sorry for the lads because they keep shooting themselves in the foot. They’re bound to feel down.”

For all that he has managed for four decades, Warnock cannot perform miracles, and the hectic schedule means the scope for addressing deep-rooted issues on the training ground is limited. Stuck with the squad that was presented to him, the 71-year-old will simply be hoping he can scramble over the line before the opportunity to enact genuine change presents itself in the summer.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in terms of Boro’s survival fight at the weekend. Hull’s defeat at home to Millwall means there is still a two-point gap to the drop zone, and as Warnock pointed out after the final whistle, things might have been different had his side taken either of their golden chances when they were just one down.

Daniel Bentley produced an excellent save to tip Georg Saville’s goalbound header onto the crossbar, but Fry erred badly when he blazed over from eight yards out after Saville cut the ball across to him in the box. Assombalonga showed the centre-half how it should have been done with eight minutes remaining, but by then it was too little, too late.

So, on we all go, with three games remaining. It is probably a blessing that only one, against play-off hopefuls Cardiff City, is at the Riverside. The other two, at Reading and Sheffield Wednesday, look like determining Boro’s fate. Let us hope they turn out to be a battle rather than a footballing test.