WHEN Middlesbrough lost to Brentford earlier this month, Neil Warnock claimed his side would have won had Ivan Toney been playing for the Teessiders rather than their opponents. When Boro suffered another defeat at Derby County this weekend, Warnock stated after the match that his side would have triumphed had Colin Kazim-Richards been playing for them rather than the opposition. Let’s just say you don’t have to be a crack detective to spot a pattern emerging.

Toney’s two goals at the Riverside took him to 23 in the league for the season. Kazim-Richards has been nowhere near as prolific, but after joining a struggling Derby side as a free agent in October, the burly 34-year-old has now notched five goals in his last ten games.

Compare that to the efforts of the Middlesbrough frontline. Between them, Britt Assombalonga, Chuba Akpom and Ashley Fletcher have scored nine goals in a combined total of 55 league appearances this term. Admittedly, it is somewhat unfair to lump Fletcher into that calculation given he was absent for more than three months because of a serious hamstring injury and is still feeling his way back to full fitness.

Nevertheless, the general trend still stands. This is a Middlesbrough side largely devoid of a goalscoring threat in the attacking positions, and while Warnock might have enjoyed a successful end to the transfer window in other areas, bringing in four players in the final three days of the window, his failure to land a new centre-forward increasingly looks like being the decisive factor in determining the fate of Boro’s faltering play-off push.

“They’re hard to come by aren’t they,” mused the Middlesbrough boss, in the wake of his side’s latest setback at Pride Park. “We’ve got three full-time recruitment people and we can’t come up with one. It’s not easy is it? But I think Middlesbrough’s had that problem for a few years, not scoring enough goals. I have tried. I’ve tried and tried, but it’s not happening really.”

Given his willingness to consider selling Assombalonga during last month’s window, Warnock clearly harbours major reservations about Boro’s club-record signing. Come the end of the season, the £15m man will almost certainly be leaving the Riverside as a free agent, bringing an end to a spell that promised plenty but delivered remarkably little.

For now though, the 28-year-old remains Boro’s best bet, even though his sharpness in and around the 18-yard box has long since disappeared. It can be argued that Warnock’s Boro side does not play to Assombalonga’s strengths, and there is merit to that assessment. Nevertheless, the contrast between Kazim-Richards’ aggressive approach at the weekend, where he repeatedly exposed Anfernee Dijksteel’s frailties as a makeshift centre-half and pretty much bullied the Boro defender out of the game, and Assombalonga’s pedestrian passivity was stark. If chances are not coming Assombalonga’s way, he has to do more to fashion them himself, something he currently appears either unwilling or incapable of doing.

If anything, Akpom is even less threatening, and while his £2m signing in September was understandable given the desperate need to get somebody through the door, his opening flurry, when he scored two goals in his opening two games, has proved a flash in the pan. Since then, the 25-year-old has been little more than a passenger in so many of his games.

Fletcher offers something different, but Warnock’s reluctance to hand him a first senior start since mid-September suggests physical frailties still exist. A degree of caution is understandable in the current climate – Yannick Bolasie’s breakdown last Thursday will only make the Boro boss even more risk-averse – but if Fletcher is fit enough to take up a place on the substitutes’ bench, the time has surely come to try him from the start. Admittedly, there would be risks. But given Boro’s chronic lack of a cutting edge at the weekend, Fletcher has to be in pole position to lead the line against Huddersfield tomorrow night.

“You wonder ‘Is there something I can do or try something else to kick-start it’,” mused Warnock on Saturday night, suggesting he was thinking exactly the same thing. “You never know, I might come up with something.”

He needs to because a promotion push that was still gathering pace as recently as the start of January is in danger of flatlining terminally.

Boro’s defensive issues are still not resolved either, with Dael Fry’s ongoing absence having exposed a lack of cover at centre-half. Grant Hall’s return should help – like Fletcher, he must have a good chance of starting tomorrow – as Dijksteel did not look comfortable at all during Saturday’s game.

“We miss Dael’s assurance,” admitted Warnock. “Dijksteel is trying hard, but that’s not his position really is it?”

It didn’t look that way at the weekend as a defence that has now shipped two or more goals in four of its last nine matches creaked repeatedly before the break.

Derby opened the scoring in alarmingly facile fashion, with a tangle between Marcus Bettinelli and Darnell Fisher enabling Lee Buchanan to nod Martyn Waghorn’s corner back across goal for Lee Gregory to head home from close range.

The Rams doubled their lead shortly after the half-hour mark, with Gregory laying the ball off for Kazim-Richards to lash a superb long-range strike past Bettinelli. The Boro goalkeeper might feel he should have done better given that Kazim-Richards’ strike was pretty much at him, although the pace of the shot provided a fair degree of mitigation.

Boro had shown nothing as an attacking force at that stage, but they got themselves back into it on the stroke of half-time as Neeskens Kebano opened his account following his deadline-day move from Fulham.

Marc Bola’s long-range shot was somewhat fortuitously deflected into Kebano’s path, and the Fulham loanee dispatched a clinical low finish past David Marshall.

The visitors dominated possession in the second half, with Derby’s defenders dropping deeper and deeper as they conceded a flurry of late free-kicks, but failed to seriously test Marshall on a single occasion.

Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, making his debut as a 65th-minute substitute, threatened with a couple of shots that were either blocked or flew off target, but despite finishing with a host of attacking players on the field, Boro’s limitations in the final third were glaringly apparent once again.

“Up front, we were like a damp squib,” admitted Warnock. “There was nothing at all happening up front.

"It’s difficult. I thought we kept on trying and had a lot of possession. We made changes in the second half and I thought we dominated it, without really threatening.

“Mendez might have had an opportunity, Paddy’s (McNair) free-kick, Grant was a whisker away from heading that in.

"We need something to drop for us in games like that, but we’ve got to make our own luck at times and we’re not doing that.”