From Darko Milanic’s point of view, a small shift forward is better than another step back and worse results than a draw at Carrow Road will chequer his record as Leeds United head coach.
It was cold and attritional at Norwich City and the autumn weather was not much better but Milanic took a point away with him – his third from five games – as all around him continued to ask when the dam in front of him would finally burst.
Leeds have not won since the day of his appointment, though Norwich themselves have done so only once and are lodged in the Championship’s play-off positions regardless.
Milanic needs a victory to come, for his own sanity as much as anything, but it will help his cause in the meantime to persevere in the absence of many more defeats.
Norwich looked more likely than Leeds to prise three points from the game, a contest as memorable as the slow drag of the A47 to Norwich, but the match was scrappy and hard work all round.
United created little, as they often do, but did not give enough away for City to feel desperately aggrieved; the better team, no doubt, but a team lacking in form and conviction.
The same can be said of the squad at Leeds and for Milanic the questions linger. Is his diamond midfield the obvious formation in a squad of more than 30 senior professionals?
Can Leeds thrive by allowing the opposition as much of the game as Norwich had? The wait for a moment of real clarity goes on but there were small flickers of it in the second half.
Trailing to a cheap header from Russell Martin on 58 minutes, Leeds replied four minutes later as Adryan broke free, created space for Souleymane Doukara and invited a delicious finish from a striker who swallows chances when the mood takes him.
It must have made Milanic wonder if the attacking players in his squad should be biding their time for as long as they did. A winning goal was too much to ask in the end, even if United owed their hosts a kick where it hurts.
The Leeds connections were there in Norwich’s squad, albeit in smaller numbers than a year ago when Robert Snodgrass and Luciano Becchio moved with the first team at Carrow Road.
United developed a habit of losing prospects or unfulfilled potential to City but the seasons are passing and the exodus from Elland Road no longer feels so recent or raw. Jonathan Howson, the ex-Leeds captain who started the game, turns 27 next year and Bradley Johnson will be 28 in April. They and others have moved on since the days when United were antagonising their own support by allowing them to leave.
If they or Leeds had scores to settle with each other, that sub-plot was lost to bigger and more pertinent issues this evening.
As a club, United have not progressed far enough to convince anyone that Howson and Johnson were wrong to move on. Back in the same division as their old club, Howson and Johnson did not have much reason to throw stones either. City sought a first win in four and Milanic sought a first win. Both were disappointed.
Milanic had victory at his fingertips at Rotherham United on Friday but a result went begging during a second half in which his players struggled to cope with Rotherham’s change of tack and Milanic himself failed to adapt his line-up as a storm gathered after half-time.
There were bound to be casualties in Norwich and Milanic’s starting line-up saw two: Stephen Warnock dropped to create room for Sam Byram at right-back and give Gaetano Berardi another whirl at left-back. Adryan also got the nod, and his impact as a substitute away at Rotherham merited a start.
Milanic trusted nonetheless in his diamond midfield, the formation which is coming to define him at Leeds. Norwich had the means and the width to exploit that system but the loss of Wes Hoolahan to injury saw Neil Adams adopt a four-man midfield, with Howson in the middle of it.
The conflicting styles did not produce a spectacle of the match. There were moments when the game threatened to open up and yield a goal but too few for either coach to think that they had made the most of a chilly evening in Norwich.
City’s openings in the first half came largely from cracks in United’s defence. Howson drove the ball close enough to Marco Silvestri for the goalkeeper to claim it in the eighth minute and Alexander Tettey scuffed a shot wide after Jason Pearce lost control of a high ball but Norwich had wobbles of their own.
Mirco Antenucci tried and failed to pick out a net left empty when keeper John Ruddy drove a clearance against his back near a corner flag, and a corner from Alex Mowatt drew a deflection which Ruddy did well to keep out of his net in the 13th minute. For a while, the contest was a test of nerve.
United were content to lie deep, bringing Norwich onto them and leaving space further up the field. In amongst the cat-and-mouse football, the most compelling incident was a confrontation between Giuseppe Bellusci and Cameron Jerome which Silvestri broke up before it could get out of hand.
Referee Mark Clattenburg spoke with both benches, both players and others on the pitch but showed no cards. Allegations of racist abuse against Bellusci came later. When the same players collided again seconds later, Bellusci lay on the pitch holding his head and Jerome was booked.
As Leeds tried and failed to bring Adryan into the game, Antenucci and Doukara grew increasingly isolated up front.
Norwich hogged the ball and Kyle Lafferty hooked an effort wide from inside the box after half an hour. Silvestri then dealt with Nathan Redmond’s rising strike with a two-handed save. Redmond had swapped wings moments earlier, looking for some encouragement.
He found a little while Milanic fretted over a litany of stray passes. Half-time suited him more than Adams and he took the chance to adjust his team, moving Adryan and Doukara out wide in a front three. But City pressed on in laboured fashion and opened the scoring in the 58th minute when United’s defence went missing, leaving an unmarked Martin to aim a free header into the net.
The soft concession rankled but in no time Leeds were level. Adryan found a rare piece of possession deep in Norwich’s half on 63 minutes and fed Doukara who held off Tettey and dinked a precise finish around Ruddy.
It sucked the wind from City’s sails and Adams’ players were unable to raise themselves again, producing no more than a shot from Jerome which flew across Silvestri. The mood towards the end was that of two clubs aspiring to better, struggling to wriggle their way out of a rut.