Tony Pulis refused to criticise his Middlesbrough team for their defeat to Aston Villa but admits it shows what needs to be done in January.
Boro were made to pay the price for their below-par performance which saw them concede three goals at home for the first time since the 3-0 defeat to Derby just over a year ago.
It was without doubt Boro’s worst display of the season, and could even be regarded as the worst under Pulis.
And the result means a four point gap has now opened up between themselves as second placed Leeds United.
The Boro boss reverted back to the usual 4-3-3 formation following the switch to three at the back against Preston. Mo Besic, Stewart Downing, Jonny Howson and Tuesday night’s goalscorer Marcus Tavernier were all recalled to the starting eleven.
However, the inclusion of fresh legs didn’t appear to bear fruit for Boro, who looked miles off the pace and were thoroughly dominated all over the pitch.
Pulis acknowledges the disappointing manner of the defeat, but credits the visitors as the deserved winners.
“Mentally I just didn’t think we looked bright enough today,” he said. “We certainly didn’t play well enough and the better team won – I don’t think there’s any question about that.
“People will criticise Darren (Randolph) for the goals but he’s been absolutely fantastic this year. He’s been top, top draw.”
The defeat, in particular, highlighted where Boro need to strengthen in January – and Pulis is under no illusions that improvements need to be made.
“It just wasn’t our day today,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t have too many more of them.
“But it shows what we need and what we can hopefully bring in when the window opens because we need to do that.
“Our players have been fantastic this year, they’ve worked so hard and they’re a great group of lads.
“But you look at Villa’s firepower, the pace and the ability they’ve got every time they pick the ball up, it’s much different to ours. That’s not me having a go at any of our players.
“We’re still in a great position, we just need to durst ourselves down and make sure we’re ready to go again next week.”
Boro were unbeaten in seven prior to this evening’s game and as always in the Championship, a big reaction is needed against Blackburn Rovers next weekend.
“They give everything this lot, they’re a really good group of lads.
“We know where we’re short and we knew that when the (summer) window closed. It just never dropped for us then, which was disappointing.
“Like I said, I’m not criticising our players because they’ve worked ever so hard. Yes, we weren’t good enough today in respect of the opposition we were playing.
“But from Darren right through to little Tav, they don’t go out and not want to win or have a go, and that’s what you want.”
Dael Fry was forced off in the second half after clashing with Villa winger Yannick Bolaise, but Pulis says he was substituted as a precaution and should be available to face Blackburn.