Paddy Davitt delivers his Stoke verdict after a Championship stalemate.

1. Half measures

When the whistle sounded against Sunderland at Carrow Road last Sunday a mini northern road trip felt like it had to produce a minimum of four points to the Championship promotion kitty.

Less to settle anything definitively in terms of the play-offs, granted, but perhaps to restore faltering belief after that high watermark of the David Wagner tenure at Millwall.

They return south with two hard-fought draws, and a real sense of momentum stalled. Alex Neil strode into his post-match media and bemoaned Norwich’s approach. He went further and claimed he had never seen a Canaries’ side ‘come and play for a draw’. But for Angus Gunn it would have been a defeat. There was no lack of commitment from Wagner’s squad, just a lack of quality or any real attacking edge to their play.

When Gabby Sara’s deep late free kick was easily claimed by Jack Bonham it summed up the fitful nature of Norwich’s forward offering. Perhaps, as Neil alluded too, there was too much respect afforded his much-improving side.

Wagner would dispute that assessment but nevertheless his side were second best for the most part.  

2. Gauntlet, thrown

The post-match performance of the Norwich head coach arguably contained more entertainment than his players served up.

For a man who was at pains not to get caught up in the cut and thrust of the ever-evolving Championship table over recent weeks, this was the first time he had publicly embraced where the Canaries sit in the pecking order.

Perhaps he felt he needed to shift the narrative.

There was a visible acknowledgement the game is up in terms of automatic – hardly a newsflash – but it was the revelation there been numerous discussions in recent days at the club’s northern training base, where he had drilled home to his players what is now at stake. The horizon may have narrowed but the end goal remains the Premier League.

To paraphrase, ‘we don’t have to wait another year to achieve our goal, it is still there and if we did it via the play-offs it will be all the sweeter.’ In that context, Wagner felt a sturdy Stoke point was a step on that road, certainly in terms of the defensive resolution and resilience.

Not even the bullish German could claim he was satisfied by what his side mustered going forward.

So the blinkers are now off. The other side of the international break is not a slow trudge to a summer rebuild. Wagner wants a full on assault on that top six. When you consider they have the likes of Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and Blackburn all still to play, and three points to make up, it is all to play for.   

3. Gunn takes the High Road 

Scotland’s prospective number one underlined his international credentials in a hectic five-minute spell midway through the first half, when he had to deny Will Smallbone and Jacob Brown, twice, to keep his side level.

It was an echo of Gunn’s solo show in the Wigan stalemate not all that long ago. In between the keeper has now established himself as Wagner’s main man between the posts, and will head away over this international period to press his claims to be the long term answer for Scotland.

The land of his father.

Those who might wish to question Gunn junior’s commitment to the cause, given his progression through England’s junior ranks, should focus instead on the calmness of his decision making and the quality of his shot stopping.

Wagner, when asked at the end of his press conference, joked Scotland ‘now have a proper keeper’. The German had also indicated in the hours that followed his call up Gunn had improved immeasurably in the short period he has worked with him.

It will be interesting to see how he handles the step up again. But his first half heroics in the Potteries underlined why he must be considered the front runner in the race to be his club’s player-of the-year. In a turbulent season, he has been a reassuring constant.  

4. Midfield Max

Something of a novelty to see Norwich City’s highly-rated and highly-valued England Under-21 right back Max Aarons actually lining up in a four-man Norwich midfield. Behind him, Wagner opted for Jacob Sorensen, who is continuing to be seen as a player for all seasons.

Wagner does not have a reputation for trying to stop the opponent at all costs, but he did hint Aarons’ redeployment was designed to help nullify a strength of Stoke in those wider areas.

He also added should the need arise again he would have no qualms using Aarons in a wider midfield role. Worth noting he started out in his career as a winger, even if this shift was more about added protection for the Dane.

Sorensen’s defensive shift had the knock on effect of dragging Sara back into a deeper-lying central midfield role alongside Kenny McLean. Albeit the Brazilian’s natural attacking instincts and athleticism did see him offer that penalty box support towards the end of the opening period.

There was another dimension added at the interval, when Andrew Omobamidele replaced Sorensen but Aarons remained in midfield.

Wagner has proven himself adept at spotting the tactical advantage to be had and reacting in real time on occasion.

He would point to this clean sheet as proof the positional calls worked in one respect.

There have been notable exceptions, when Wagner’s template has looked vulnerable. Tony Mowbray appeared to gain the upper hand at Carrow Road the previous weekend, while Burnley were far more dismissive. No surprise given their soaring status.

On one level this Stoke set up showed Wagner’s flexibility again, but Aarons in midfield looked more of an experiment than another string to his bow.  

5. Injuries

More doom and gloom delivered by Wagner. Onel Hernandez (ankle) and Adam Idah (foot) both face ‘weeks’ on the sidelines. In the short term that rules the luckless Republic of Ireland international out of his country’s upcoming qualifiers.

Wagner indicated there is no break in terms of bones for the striker, while Hernandez is another who does not require surgery. The Cuban visited a specialist in London on Thursday and, according to Wagner will return before the end of the season. The question is when, and what state will City’s play-off chances be in?

To complete the set, Jon Rowe’s bid to make a competitive senior return this season remains on hold. Further assessment after inconclusive scans on a hamstring injury are planned for the early part of the week.

At least Ben Gibson was able to overcome his hamstring issue from the first half at Huddersfield to line up alongside Grant Hanley, although Norwich’s backline did suffer another casualty when Dimi Giannoulis departed late on after a crunching collision with Ben Pearson.

If there is one upside from a pause in the action it might be for Wagner and his staff to patch up their non-international contingent. Then keep their fingers crossed this theme does not continue between now and Sheffield United’s visit to Carrow Road.