“They’re above us in the league for a reason,” said Frank Lampard and every time Leeds United cross his path, the truth bites.
Close your eyes tightly and Saturday was August again: Leeds overrunning Pride Park, Kemar Roofe picking off Derby County and Lampard on that lonely planet where no-one can hear a manager scream.
Leeds toyed with his players in the first month of the season but the first month of the season is often laden with false promise. Saturday was the sharp end, the first of two steps to Wembley, and Lampard felt himself being schooled again by a head coach who keeps on giving him an education.
One quote from Bielsa, offered up in January, must ring in Lampard’s ears: “I don't need to watch a training session of an opponent to know how the opponent plays.” And Derby most of all.
Leeds never need much to help them when they play well and nothing at all, save the intervention of a linesman, when they have a team on strings like they did Derby at Pride Park.
Wembley is calling Bielsa, almost ready to open its doors to a man whose innovation helped generate the type of football which venues like Wembley like to showcase, and Leeds continue to trade on an immense refusal to yield.
“It was painful for us not to be automatically promoted,” Bielsa admitted. But who in his camp is dwelling on that?
Bielsa’s gift at Leeds is to draw breath and come again; to look accusations of burnout in the eye and drive Leeds back to a level where everything changes while nothing changes.
Twice Bielsa has given Lampard full sight of his blueprint and still Lampard was scratching his head, unable to make anything of those lessons and unable to find ways to unravel Bielsa’s thread. Derby, or so it felt, were counting on an early goal to set fire to their crowd.
Gaetano Berardi dealt with their only chance of that and Leeds set the metronome ticking, picking away at Derby patiently until Kemar Roofe scored in the 55th minute.
“It was a fair win,” Bielsa said, in his most conservative tone.
A single goal, in this of all months, is too small a lead for Bielsa to fawn over and he watched with everyone else this week while Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur were belittling far bigger and more impossible deficits but he and Lampard are savvy enough to realise that something sizeable needs to change in Derby to bridge the gulf which exists between their football.
Lampard was annoyed by a second-half penalty which wasn’t, disallowed by an assistant referee who stuck his neck out in front of baying stands, but it was a slender straw to clutch.
“I didn’t want to lose not playing like we can,” a deflated Lampard said. “There wasn’t the confidence in out play.”
Bielsa has found it somewhere; from a teary defeat at Brentford on Easter Monday, and even the shambles of losing to Ipswich Town, to a day in Derby which made it feel like he and his players had never been away.
Derby came at Leeds quickly and Berardi’s sliding block kept out David Nugent when Nugent nipped in behind Bielsa’s defence but Leeds killed the frantic play by settling into a rhythm and giving Derby no outlets to aim at.
If psychology wasn’t at play beforehand, it began to kick in then, familiarity breeding contempt amongst a quietening home crowd.
In a goalless first half, and a half without a save from either goalkeeper, the critical moment for Bielsa was an injury to Adam Forshaw, yet another one to add to the list but in reality, a disguised blessing.
Forshaw’s hamstring strain made way for Jamie Shackleton, a diamond in Leeds’ Under-23s squad who has been somewhat underused by Bielsa. Derby quickly grew to dislike the unpredictability of his positioning, his burst of pace over 10 yards and the strength of a player his age.
“He showed his character and personality,” Bielsa said and playing like he did, a midfield position should be Shackleton’s in Wednesday’s second leg and at Wembley if Leeds get there.
Bielsa, in periods of the season, has been asked to explain why Jack Harrison has held a place so religiously when someone like Shackleton cannot but 10 minutes into the second half, Pawson played advantage after Tom Lawrence took out Stuart Dallas and Harrison burst away down the left, taking out several defenders with a dream of a ball into the box.
Roofe last scored in January, at home to Derby, but always scores against Derby and met the pass with a cushioned finish into the bottom corner.
Thirty seconds earlier, Pride Park had fired itself up with a hefty sliding tackle from Duane Holmes on Dallas. Roofe’s goal was like pulling a plug from the socket.
Bielsa would have liked a second goal but in the end, was pleased to have the rub of an incident which niggled Lampard but shone a good light on Pawson’s assistant, Eddie Smart.
Pawson awarded a penalty after Harrison and Jayden Bogle tangled in the box but Smart called him to the touchline and told him to give Leeds a free-kick instead.
Lampard called it “like VAR without the computer system” and said Pawson’s willingness to pay “second-fiddle” to his linesman was “astounding” but in terms of the official’s assistant, the clue was in the name.
Replays showed Harrison getting a touch on the ball and very little in the way of a touch on Bogle.
“If we all looked at it in this room, some would say yes and some would say no,” Lampard said.
“I get that. I’m just surprised a referee in a game of this magnitude has decided to play second fiddle to his assistant.”
Bielsa has never trained Leeds to ease up and they came at Derby repeatedly, with shots from Roofe and Shackleton drawing diving saves from Kelle Roos and Pablo Hernandez swinging and missing when Luke Ayling picked him out.
It will be the same on Wednesday when Leeds, in theory, defend a single goal but play as if they are a goal down, the Bielsa way from the day his career set sail.
“In every game we try to win,” he said, forever confident that fortune favours the brave and more certain than ever after the week behind him that the strongest of leads can be no lead at all.
This season is back in his hands as an anxious Lampard wrings his.