Middlesbrough’s defence has been the strong point in the Teessiders’ first Premier League season since 2009.
But, despite conceding only 30 goals in 27 games this term, Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Stoke City dropped Boro into the relegation zone.
Marko Arnautovic’s double steered the Potters home as Boro failed to score for the fourth successive league match, and their run without a league win stretched to 10.
Boss Aitor Karanka, who lost centre-back Daniel Ayala to a hamstring injury early on at the Bet365 Stadium, was disappointed with his side’s defending for both goals, particularly given the way they had prepared to deal with Stoke in the build-up.
Karanka said: “When we were trying to get confidence in the game, we conceded a goal – in a way we knew, because we had seen on video.
“We conceded the second goal from a set-piece.
“When you are playing to survive in the Premier League, to concede those goals – in situations we knew before the game – it is difficult.
“This is the Premier League and one mistake, you are punished.”
The opener came when Glenn Whelan sent a long ball forward and Arnautovic did excellently to control it, get away from George Friend and past Victor Valdes and fire into the net.
The defending was certainly questionable for the second goal. Peter Crouch rose above centre0back Bernardo as a corner came in and directed a header towards goal that was hooked in by Arnautovic.
Boro were booed off at the interval, and they began the second half with Cristhian Stuani having been introduced for Gaston Ramirez.
The visitors had the ball in the net around the hour mark when defender Ben Gibson tapped in, but with the flag raised for offside – much to Karanka’s dismay – the effort was ruled out.
The discontent from the travelling support, with Boro now three points adrift of safety, was put to Karanka, buit he said: “I didn’t hear.
“But I came here because the chairman (Steve Gibson) called me three years ago to help the club to be in the Premier League, and I will leave the day that the chairman says.
“The only thing I can do is work harder every day.”
Karanka, who got Boro promoted as Championship runners-up last term, feels there is plenty that needs addressing but emphasised the need to “just keep going”.
He said: “The problem I think is a lot of things – it’s not just one. Because if it was just one, I would fix it, but it’s more than one, more than two, more than three.
“We are in the bottom three in March. For a recently promoted team to be for the first time in the bottom three in March is because we are doing something well.
“We knew we were going to be fighting until the end to survive and my thought is just to keep going.”
Boro take a break from the league to tackle Manchester City in this Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final.
Stoke: Grant, Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi (Afellay 87), Pieters, Cameron, Whelan, Arnautovic (Diouf 65), Allen, Sobhi, Crouch (Berahino 79). Subs not used: Bardsley, Adam, Walters, Given. Booked: Shawcross. Goals: Arnautovic 29, 42
Middlesbrough: Valdes, Da Silva, Ayala (Bernardo 8), Gibson, Friend, Leadbitter (Guedioura 75), de Roon, Clayton, Ramirez (Stuani 46), Gestede, Traore. Subs not used: Negredo, Guzan, Barragan, Forshaw. Booked: Friend, de Roon
Att: 27,644. Ref: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire)