Ref no help but Leeds United fate lies elsewhere – Graham Smyth’s Verdict on Aston Villa bore draw

The beautiful game and the best league in the world made their long-awaited return to Elland Road when Leeds United hosted Aston Villa, apparently.
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Even at the end of a barely tolerable 29-day wait, this game was no sight for sore eyes and its 0-0 scoreline felt entirely fitting.

No game is ever completely forgettable, something always stands out, yet none of this game's remarkable features were remotely redeeming.

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For a Leeds side who played 46 minutes with 10 men it was a fine result.

Aston Villa are exactly the type of club with whom the Whites are competing for mid-table comfort, at best, and Premier League survival, at worst.

Beating them felt important, as the game kicked off, but holding them to a stalemate took on a much more satisfactory and appealing look when Luis Sinisterra made his early exit having fallen foul of referee Stuart Attwell.

A match official has done his job when his own performance is easy to forget, and no-one can say that Sinisterra did not - in the eyes of the law - deserve his second yellow card, but Steven Gerrard's straight-faced insistence that the referee had a good game ignored a litany of inconsistencies.

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Leon Bailey blasted the ball away ahead of a Leeds free-kick and received no yellow. A glut of players performed trips akin to one that resulted in Sinisterra's first yellow, without receiving a card.

FLASH POINT - Stuart Attwell looked like a man trying to find a way out of his decision to send off Luis Sinisterra, but the Leeds United man gave him a decision to make. Pic: Jonathan GawthorpeFLASH POINT - Stuart Attwell looked like a man trying to find a way out of his decision to send off Luis Sinisterra, but the Leeds United man gave him a decision to make. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe
FLASH POINT - Stuart Attwell looked like a man trying to find a way out of his decision to send off Luis Sinisterra, but the Leeds United man gave him a decision to make. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Mateusz Klich was probably worth three cautions in his 15-minute cameo and saw none, just as Ashley Young lived an inexplicably charmed life throughout.

Ultimately, Sinisterra was the architect of his own dismissal and the two sides bear most of the responsibility for the niggly nature of the game. They take all the blame for the missed chances and wastefulness that left it goalless.

Attwell, however, was no help at all when either side were taking their sweet time to restart the game and did nothing to help create something watchable, never mind a spectacle.

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Leeds, it seems, were almost expecting Villa to take that tack from the outset.

CEO Angus Kinnear wrote the following in the programme: "The fact that “ball in play time” has reached a decade-low average of 55 minutes [with a remarkable spread of over 20 minutes between the highest and the lowest fixtures] will hopefully create an impetus to address the systematic “game management” that appears to be both increasingly pervasive and troublingly tolerated while antithetical to everything that has made Premier League football loved across the globe."

Twenty minutes had elapsed when Attwell first went to hurry up Emiliano Martínez.

A minute later Tyrone Mings and Martinez pulled the old 'I'll take it, oh no you take it' routine and Attwell felt a loud blast of his whistle was sufficient action.

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Marsch revealed after the game that 90 minutes of Premier League managers' time this week had been taken up with the division's vows to do more to control the 'run of play' in matches.

It will evidently take more than whistle volume.

When the ball was in play, there wasn't a huge amount of good stuff done with it in the first half.

The first seven minutes were an extension of the summer friendly, the sides trading niggly fouls until Attwell flashed his yellow for Ludwig Augustinsson.

Leeds played the better stuff, in sporadic moments, without ever troubling Martinez.

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The game's first attack of note started with Sinisterra's quick feet in his own half, skinning black shirts to put Leeds on the front foot, in space. Rodrigo's shot, at the end of the move, was blocked.

Villa threatened from set-pieces and in transitional moments, just as Marsch had expected, and Illan Meslier's uncharacteristically shaky moments from aerial deliveries encouraged the visitors as they shaded the first half in moments that could have led to bigger moments.

Meslier's shot-stopping, however, was up to scratch and kept out Ollie Watkins when he ran at the defence and fired goalward.

Rodrigo threw himself at a Sinisterra cross, to no avail, then fired wide from distance, before it all became a bit spiteful.

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A barge in the back of Rodrigo went unpunished, riling Marc Roca who promptly slid into Watkins and, for a second or two, looked destined for an early bath as Attwell reached for his back pocket. After hesitation and, presumably, a word in his ear from his team, the referee produced a yellow.

Marsch's instructions at the break were for Leeds to push the game more. He wanted more attacking output and the game so badly needed it.

But when Sinisterra lazily waved a boot in the air to block a Villa free-kick, he gave Attwell a decision to make and put Leeds on the back foot.

The yellow came out, Villa's players reminded him that Sinisterra had already been booked and out came the red.

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As Elland Road erupted, Attwell looked for all the world like a man trying to find a way out of his decision, speaking with the fourth official and then seeking advice from his ear piece.

Villa's best chance to take advantage came immediately, Philippe Coutinho crashing a volley off the woodwork, Watkins steering the rebound wide.

Leeds switched formation and personnel to shore things up and stood up well to the numerical disadvantage, getting bodies in the way and forcing Villa to try their luck from long range.

Emi Buendía came closest with a beautiful curling effort.

By this time, John McGinn was pointing out Meslier’s leisurely approach to goal-kicks and no one had to point out the irony of that. It might also have been pointed out that Villa’s time wasting came early in the first half, at 0-0, when 11 v 11.

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Leeds could have won it, late, when substitutes Patrick Bamford and Mateusz Klich were denied by Martinez and John McGinn respectively, but at full-time the point felt enough.

No-one on the pitch deserved to win it, no-one in the stands deserved to watch it, and everyone will quickly move on.

Except, Leeds might find themselves here in the near future. This might happen again. It might keep happening, because in his press conference Marsch stated his belief that teams come to Elland Road to frustrate and prevent them from playing with tempo and energy. Gerrard, in his, admitted that was Villa’s plan.

The Premier League, if it wants to continue boasting of its superiority to all other season-long domestic competitions, have to protect the ‘product’ and do their utmost to prevent teams from keeping the ball out of play.

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Whether they do or don’t, Leeds’ job is to protect themselves from frustration by being better with the ball and making things happen in the final third, because there is no surer way to stop time wasting than to go a goal up.

Opposition sides and referees can and do have a say in matters, and they will become talking points, but the Whites’ fate this season will rest almost entirely in their own hands, especially against sides they need to beat to stay up. What they do with it is all anyone will remember.