AS someone who likes predictability, Neil Warnock is always happiest when he knows what his teams are going to do. That is true of his Middlesbrough side at the moment, but their recurring habit is not a good one. Two games into the season, and Boro have already developed a worrying propensity for conceding soft goals.

Seven days after shipping three against League One Shrewsbury in the first round of the Carabao Cup, Boro only conceded the one goal as they kicked off their Championship campaign at Vicarage Road. It was a costly one, though, as it enabled Watford to record a 1-0 victory that the remainder of their play hardly warranted.

Craig Cathcart’s 11th-minute header condemned Boro to an opening-day defeat for the first time in three seasons, with the Watford centre-half barging his way past Grant Hall to convert Ken Sema’s cross.

Marcus Bettinelli had no chance of keeping the ball out as he made his Middlesbrough debut, but the loanee was barely tested from that point onwards as his team-mates dominated much of the play.

They could only fashion a handful of half-chances though, so their early defensive aberration proved crucial. Ben Foster made decent saves from Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga, but they were the type of stops you would expect a former England international to make. In tight games such as this, you cannot afford to hand your opponents a goal head start.

Warnock will have been pleased with his players’ endeavour and effort, and there were moments, particularly when Djed Spence was breaking down the touchline in the second half, when Boro looked capable of causing a threat.

Ultimately, though, the visitors were hamstrung by their manager’s inability to change things as time ticked away in the second half. Without a single forward on the bench, Warnock did not have a Plan B, something he will be desperate to address in the next couple of weeks.

Slowly but surely, Boro’s squad is coming together, but gaps are still apparent. Bettinelli made his debut last night, and while Sam Morsy’s transfer from Wigan did not go through in time for him to be involved at Vicarage Road, his arrival will guarantee some much-needed competition at the base of midfield.

Two glaring problems remain though – at centre-half, where Paddy McNair’s presence in the back three last night underlined Warnock’s lack of options, and at centre-forward, where the absence of a single substitute striker highlighted the chronic need for an attacking addition in the next couple of weeks. Goodness knows what Warnock would do at the moment if either Fletcher or Assombalonga picked up an injury.

Thankfully, he did not have to worry about that last night, but there was still plenty that would have concerned the Boro boss as he watched the opening match of the season unfold. In particular, he would have been alarmed at his side’s defending, with many of the weaknesses that were apparent in the previous week’s 4-3 win over League One Shrewsbury evident once again.

Defending balls into the box is clearly an issue, and while the signing of Grant Hall was supposed to add some solidity and aerial prowess to the backline, a powerful, athletic Watford side caused problems whenever they were able to pack out the 18-yard box.

Their 11th-minute opener was a case in point. Watford worked a short-corner routine neatly, enabling Ken Sema to deliver a cross from the left, but Boro should really have had sufficient defenders in their own area to have dealt with the danger. Instead, Cathcart outmuscled Hall far too easily, and powered home a header from the edge of the six-yard box.

Twenty minutes later, and Boro were found wanting from another set-piece, with Joao Pedro finding himself completely unmarked as he met Domingos Quina’s corner ten yards out. The Brazilian striker should really have scored, but his header flew wastefully wide of the target.

Boro’s defensive struggles were especially frustrating as in all other aspects of the game, they were more than a match for their opponents, who started the season as one of the favourites for the title following their relegation from the Premier League last term.

Marvin Johnson continued his impressive early-season form at left wing-back, Marcus Tavernier was a lively presence at the attacking apex of midfield and, in attack, Fletcher and Assombalonga ran themselves into the ground in an attempt to shake off Watford’s impressively-committed defenders.

It was just one of those nights when the ball would not really drop, or when half-chances were blocked or charged down rather than flying on target. The tone was set early on when Fletcher rode a couple of tackles, only for his low shot to deflect narrowly wide.

Midway through the first half, and a slick passing move involving Tavernier and Fletcher resulted in Assombalonga breaking into the left side of the area, but his low shot was kept out by Ben Foster’s legs.

Foster also held on to Fletcher’s half-volley towards the end of the first half, but while Jonny Howson whistled a low drive just past the post on the stroke of half-time, the interval arrived without Boro having been able to carve out a gilt-edged opportunity.

They went close at the start of the second half, with Howson’s pinpoint cross-field ball finding Assombalonga in the final third. The newly-appointed Boro skipper spun neatly past his marker before drilling in a low strike, but Foster got down well to tip the ball around the post. The Watford goalkeeper was called into action again shortly after the hour mark, tipping Assombalonga’s floated free-kick over the bar.

For the most part, though, the second period followed a similar pattern to the first, with Boro dominating possession and spending plenty of time in the Watford half, only to struggle to create any kind of space in the box.

Djed Spence made a series of dangerous bursts down the flank, only for Watford’s defence, marshalled by the commanding Christian Kabasele, to cut out his deliveries into the middle. Fletcher continued to spin into wide positions, only for his dribbles and sprints to be blocked off.

Boro fashioned a final chance with four minutes left, but Assombalonga’s glanced header from Tavernier’s free-kick sailed harmlessly over the crossbar.

It was an effort that pretty much summed up the visitors’ night. This wasn’t a horrendous way to start the season, but it confirmed that Boro remain a work in progress, with further additions required before the transfer window closes next month.

Warnock knew that before kick-off, but if he needed a reminder, he was duly presented with one. The season has begun, but Boro’s rebuilding remains incomplete.