Middlesbrough's woes continue with relegation seeming ever more likely after a lacklustre display at the bet365 Stadium. Despite fielding a positive-looking lineup, Aitor Karanka's men barely turned up in the first half and struggled to compete in the middle of the park. When Ben Gibson's goal was ruled out for offside midway through the second half, another Boro defeat looked cut and dried, and Stoke barely needed to step out of second gear to collect all three points.
Left-back Fabio was strong while his counterpart on the right, George Friend, struggled against a rampant Marko Arnautovic. Victor Valdes also largely kept Boro in contention but was left in limbo by his defenders for the opening Stoke goal, which was a long time coming.
Gaston Ramirez once again brought nothing to the table with an underwhelming performance on the left wing. Boro pinned their hopes on the pace and wizardry of Adama Traore but he was largely ineffectual, marked out of the game with Stoke midfielders doubling up on him. Many at the ground felt that Karanka may have lost the dressing room given the lack of fight and battle from most of his players. The positive look and feel of the starting lineup belied the toothless attack and lack of movement from the team as a unit.
Manager rating out of 10
5 -- Aitor Karanka cannot be accused of not "going for it" in that he started with what is probably Boro's strongest side. It looked like he had demanded a more direct approach, particularly with his decision to lead with Rudy Gestede up front, but Boro rarely gave the Stoke defence anything to worry about. The poor Ramirez was replaced at half-time by a brighter Cristhian Stuani and, given the other options on the bench, there seemed to be little more that the Basque boss could have done to change the outcome.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Victor Valdes, 6 -- Found himself in no man's land for the opening Stoke goal but commanded his area well and kept the score down.
DF Ben Gibson, 6 -- Back to his usual level of quality, Gibson coped well with Stoke's aerial threat and even found the back of the net only to see it unfairly ruled out for offside.
DF Daniel Ayala, 3 -- Ayala barely had a chance to get into the game before pulling up with a leg injury that saw him hurried off after eight minutes.
DF George Friend, 3 -- While Boro fans were pleased to see a natural left-back return to the lineup, Friend really struggled to match up to an in-form Arnautovic.
DF Fabio, 6 -- Featuring at right-back for the second week running, Fabio impressed with his work rate and classy defensive skills, although much of the Stoke attacking came down the other wing.
MF Adama Traore, 4 -- Traore found himself largely frustrated today. Despite working his socks off and helping Boro out defensively, he was unsuccessful in his forward breaks and found himself crowded out as Stoke doubled up on him.
MF Marten de Roon, 5 -- Got forward well and defended in his usual gritty manner, but kept losing the ball when it mattered.
MF Adam Clayton, 4 -- Never work-shy, Clayton pushed himself hard but was ultimately outclassed in midfield and left gaping holes as Boro scrambled to cover in this scrappy affair.
MF Gaston Ramirez, 2 -- Ramirez was invisible in this game and was lucky that Karanka waited until half-time to remove him from proceedings.
MF Grant Leadbitter, 6 -- Leadbitter's grit and experience was a boon for today but he made some odd decisions in not taking the direct option on corners and free kicks, leaving Boro to regret their handful of wasted chances.
FW Rudy Gestede, 5 -- After getting the nod ahead of Alvaro Negredo, Gestede worked hard but couldn't out-battle a steadfast Stoke defence.
MF Cristhian Stuani, 6 -- Stuani helped to lift proceedings and give Boro more options once deadweight Ramirez was removed from the equation.
MF Adlene Guedioura, 4 -- Had little time to impact the game and if anything forced Boro into a more defensive style despite the need to get forward and lighten the deficit.
DF Bernardo, 5 -- Slotted in well after Ayala's injury and made some last-gasp tackles that spared the scoreline as well as Boro's blushes.