'I have Leeds United in my heart' - Marcelo Bielsa coach shuts down Jesse Marsch 'talk'

It's there written in Benoit Delaval's packed schedule. May 16: Leeds United vs Norwich City. Delaval may be working at RC Lens these days, but this Bielsa disciple has ensured he is 'booked in' to watch the second-leg of his former side's play-off semi-final tonight.

"I have Leeds in my heart and in my blood," the club's ex-fitness coach told Leeds Live. "I would like to have them in the Premier League until the end of my life."

Delaval knows the rather bonkers nature of the play-offs better than most having experienced it first-hand in 2019. Marcelo Bielsa's team, like Daniel Farke's current outfit, triumphed in just one of their final five league games. However, despite their patchy form, Leeds managed to win the first-leg of their semi-final away at Derby County 1-0.

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Leeds looked in command, especially after taking the lead in the return fixture at Elland Road, but the hosts gave Derby a way back into the tie right before half-time and fell apart thereafter, losing 4-2 on aggregate. The only sound you could hear in the tunnel that night was giddy Derby players and staff ironically singing 'Stop crying Frank Lampard!' in the away dressing room, but the Whites came back stronger.

"We were not ready to play a game so important like that," Delaval admitted. "When we won the first-leg, away from home, the impression was, 'That's over. We are already in the final.' It was not like that. We were maybe a bit too confident. We were not ready like we were for the first-leg inconsciently.

"I don't want to say it was great to lose the play-off semi-final - it's impossible to say that - but the second season was the result of the first one...the hours and days after the Derby defeat were terrible but, maybe five weeks later when we came back, we were stronger and more than ready to get promoted without the play-offs. We didn't want to replay a play-off like that.

"Everything was clear. We wanted to finish top of the league. From the start of that next season, we were almost invincible. Everyone was ready to come up. It was the best moment in my professional life."

Delaval still smiles at the memory of Leeds having 'four or five parties' during the course of an 'unbelievable' 10 days as various milestones were ticked off, whether it was securing automatic promotion, becoming champions or, finally, lifting the trophy in 2020. The only downside for Delaval was that 'fans were missing', but the squad got to share a moment outside Elland Road with those supporters who were unable to attend games due to COVID restrictions. Even Bielsa popped by after long 'pushing everyone to do their best'.

"Working with him is very exciting because we work a lot but, on the field, it's something special," Delaval said. "We are very proactive and dynamic.

Marcelo Bielsa is presented with his Championship manager of the month award for November, 2019 alongside Liam Cooper and Benoit Delaval
Marcelo Bielsa is presented with his Championship manager of the month award for November, 2019 alongside Liam Cooper and Benoit Delaval -Credit:George Wood/JMP

"Marcelo has a proper playing style and to enable the players to play 46 games in the Championship or 38 games in the Premier League is not easy for the fitness coaches, medical team or performance department, but it's an exciting challenge. When you do your job to your best and try to develop and try to get the players to fit into the system, afterwards, you have unbelievable emotions. These were memories for life."

Delaval, who joined Liam Cooper in collecting the 2019 FIFA Fair Play award for Leeds, quietly played his part behind the scenes in helping to make the players Bielsa fit, which is a physical state quite like no other. However, rather than trying to take any credit whatsoever, it is rather telling that Delaval instead highlights the 'collective': the medical department managed by Rob Price; his former colleagues Ruben Crespo and Tom Robinson, who were the rehabilitation and assistant fitness coaches respectively at the time; the club's technical staff and analysts; and, finally, the players who bought into those gruelling sessions.

Murderball is not for everyone, after all. These 11 v 11 drills on a Wednesday were like nothing the squad had ever experienced as they traded blows for 25 minutes without rest while staff roared at them and threw the ball back in play whenever it went out. The majority of fouls went unpunished.

"All the clubs in the world play 11 v 11 at least once a week, but the special thing was the intensity was very high so for this reason the term murderball was born," Delaval said. "It's the most demanding part of the week and this is useful because if you are able to finish murderball once a week, almost all the games are easier."

Delaval readily admitted that he 'didn't know how this word came about', from outside the club, but there was a science to murderball. Take Leeds' first season back in the Premier League. Top-flight games lasted an average of 96 minutes at the time but the average effective playing time was 54 minutes. The players knew that when they had a murderball session of 25 minutes of effective time, they had already completed nearly half a game at a remarkably high intensity.

Mateusz Klich, Liam Cooper and Benoit Delaval do laps of Thorp Arch -Credit:LUTV
Mateusz Klich, Liam Cooper and Benoit Delaval do laps of Thorp Arch -Credit:LUTV

Leeds' Duracell Bunnies quickly won admirers at the highest level. There is no love lost between Leeds and Manchester United, of course, but even former Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called the Whites the 'fittest team' in the Premier League in 2020.

No one could come close when it came to sprints or high-intensity running. After seeing Leeds cover a distance of almost 120km in a 5-0 win against his West Brom side, Sam Allardyce commented: "Leeds didn't just outplay us - they outran us." A dazed Jonjo Shelvey could not help but ask Rodrigo to 'stand still for one minute' after the former Leeds forward 'ran around like a nutcase' in a 4-2 win against Newcastle United.

What, perhaps, was most impressive was how Leeds finished ninth in their first season back in the Premier League all while sticking to Bielsa's principles. "We didn't change our way of thinking or playing," Delaval beamed.

The second season, however, got away from Bielsa as injuries and defeats piled up and Leeds fell to 16th in the table in February. By the time Leeds suffered a fifth loss in six games - a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Spurs in their own backyard - Delaval knew what was coming.

"It was very difficult," the Frenchman said. "You are at Elland Road. After the game, you know that you are going to be sacked.

"The day after you are at Thorp Arch to collect your stuff. On Monday, you say goodbye to everyone and that's it over. It's so quick. You know it's possible to experience this, but you are never ready for it. That's football. That's the way it is."

Leeds would go on to stay up, under successor Jesse Marsch, who claimed the Whites had the worst injury record in the Premier League that season because of Bielsa's 'training methodology'. Marsch declared that the players were 'over-trained', which led to them being 'physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically in a difficult place'. Did that hurt?

"When you change something in a company, the new arrival will have the opposite way of the previous one," Delaval added. "Maybe the guy after Jesse Marsch will say the team is not ready to play in the Premier League.

"The most important thing was we did our very best every day. We worked a lot. We had convictions and we didn't move from them. We were honest, clear and accurate with everyone. I prefer to stay away from this kind of unnecessary talk."