Up until the 71st minute, the match between Leeds United and Aston Villa had been relatively uneventful. But once the game clock hit 71:20, the English Championship bout decided to make up for its lack of excitement over the next several moments with a debatably unsportsmanlike goal leading to a scuffle that got an Aston Villa player sent off, and a manager telling his team to let the opponents have an unopposed run at goal.
The whole thing started when Aston Villa’s Jonathan Kodjia picked up an injury while trying to go for a tackle. As he laid on the ground, Leeds retained possession of the ball and made a couple quick passes towards the sideline. Villa players seemed to be under the impression that their opponents were planning on kicking the ball out of play so their teammate could have his injury looked at. But when the ball got to Leeds’ Tyler Roberts, he appeared to feign a pass towards the touchline and actually sent it to Mateusz Klich, who saw a clear opportunity to score and went for it. Villa players became furious over the unsportsmanlike move, and started grabbing at Klich. Stewards had to get on the pitch to separate players from one another and, before long, Villa’s Anwar El Ghazi was sent off because officials determined he sent a Leeds player to the ground with his elbow—though replays would show the Leeds player flopped.
It’s worth noting that a team’s decision to kick the ball out of play for an injured player is not a requirement. The referee can’t actually force a team to do that—only if it’s a head injury, or anything gruesome, does a ref usually stop a game outright—but it’s usually done as a sign of good sportsmanship. Villa’s problem with what Leeds did seems to stem from the fact that Leeds really did look like they were planning to kick the ball out, but then used some old-fashioned trickery to get a goal instead. It’s by no means a defense of Villa slowly coming to a halt before a whistle was blown, it’s just an explanation.
Villa players weren’t the only ones who seemed upset over the goal. The anger made its way over to where the managers were. After some intense back-and-forth between the two teams’ benches, Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa went with an unorthodox decision to tell his team to let Villa have an uninterrupted run at goal. As the boos rained down from the crowd, Leeds players stood still—with the exception of Pontus Jansson, who still played defense and was caught telling Bielsa “this is a joke”—as Albert Adomah made his way towards the opposing net.
Just like Leeds wasn’t obligated to kick the ball out of play, Bielsa was not obligated to tell his players to allow the goal. Here’s what he had to say about the decision after the game:
“We just gave the goal back. The facts are what everyone saw, and we express our interpretation of the facts by doing what we did.
“English football is known for sportsmanship, so I don’t have to comment on this kind of thing. I think today’s performance against the best team in the Championship at this moment puts us close to what our possibilities are.”
In theory it’s a response of fair play to what some would deem an unworthy goal. Of course, the question of whether that was the right thing to do gets muddled when you consider the consequences of this decision. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. Had Leeds stuck with the 1-0 lead, and held onto it, they would have earned enough points to make the race for automatic promotion competitive on the last matchday of the season. But, Leeds only secured one point from the draw meaning and were mathematically eliminated from gaining automatic promotion—which Sheffield United got instead. They now have to enter a four-team playoff for the third spot in the Premier League. By the way, Aston Villa is also in that playoff and if both teams win their semifinal match, the battle for the final promotion spot will be a rematch of this very weird game.