LUKE AYLING is an example of how Leeds United have changed since Millwall last wiped the floor with them in Bermondsey.
The defender cannot remember a time when he was fitter or thinner, or recall a summer in which so much attention was paid to losing weight.
Ayling had never thought of himself as oversized but he started pre-season with an order telling him to lose more than half a stone. Body fat was specifically targeted at Thorp Arch as Marcelo Bielsa tried to create a certain type of athlete.
“I’m the fittest, the skinniest, the leanest I’ve been,” Ayling said. “I thought I was skinny before but he came in and said ‘no, four kilos is what you’ve got to lose’. We had weight targets to reach each day.” Those targets were hit religiously.
Physicality is half the battle at Millwall, where Leeds seem to suffer the most infuriating of mental blocks. They have lost eight of their last 10 games there and all of their last four, routinely swallowed by the riotous atmosphere of the New Den.
Last season’s defeat, midway through September, ended a seven-match unbeaten run and pulled the rug from under a squad who were top of the Championship under Thomas Christiansen.
It was classic Millwall: hostile in every sense and beyond Leeds’ wit to control at any stage. The fluency of Bielsa’s first month as United head coach and glowing coverage generated by it will only encourage Saturday’s hosts to derail the train again.
There is, though, some continuity in Leeds’ team and as many as seven of the players who were in the squad at Millwall last September could start under Bielsa on Saturday.
Ayling, who completed 90 minutes of a 1-0 loss 12 months ago, thinks the experience will help and is optimistic that this United team will be less prone to the post-Millwall collapse which occured on Christiansen’s watch.
“Last year we went there and tried our hardest, we still tried to play our game, but some of the boys got caught out by how hostile it was and how Millwall played,” he said.
It’s pretty much the same team this year ... but people can see we’re a different team to last year. I think we can stand up to this kind of threat and this kind of style of play.Luke Ayling
“It’s pretty much the same team this year, not many changes from the team who went down there last year, but people can see we’re a different team to last year. I think we can stand up to this kind of threat and this kind of style of play.
“Last year’s result was bound to get brought up but we don’t really care about that. It’s a new season with a whole new team spirit. We can’t say too much at the minute because we’re only six games in and we’ve still got to prove that we’re different but from my point of view, and I know the boys feel it, we’re stronger, quicker, fitter and playing football the way we want to play, scoring goals freely.”
Leeds’ last game before the international break, a 0-0 draw at home to Middlesbrough, was a useful precursor for Millwall away. Bielsa’s side struggled to find their usual rhythm but dealt well with Middlesbrough’s height and power and dominated possession throughout. After a run of skilful, and often irresistible, performances, a different game reflected well on the organisation in Bielsa’s ranks.
His players will need that discipline on Saturday as Millwall – a side out of form after one win from six league fixtures – attempt to tear into them. Steve Morison, the former Leeds striker and a pantomime villain in these matches, spoke last weekend of “pulling on my Zlatan Ibrahimovic kit” to influence the result in way he did in both of Millwall’s wins over United last season.
Not for the first time, Millwall’s style will create a contrast with Bielsa’s as Middlesbrough’s did 10 days ago.
“Some people don’t like it but it gets them results and that’s absolutely fine,” Ayling said. “Us boys have to find a way to deal with it and put our football out there, which I don’t think we did (against Boro). We have to find a way of stopping them being effective in our box but also of bringing our game on to them.
“It’s hard for the manager to be talking about Millwall yet with seven or eight players off on international duty but we’ve touched on a few bits about how he wants us to press and he’s a big thinker. I’m sure he’s thinking about how best to beat them.”
Bielsa has been surgical in his work and attention to detail at Leeds. Speaking during a visit to the Leeds General Infirmary’s Congenital Heart Unit last week, as part of the club’s tie-up with the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund, Ayling revealed that United’s players were given just one day off in August as part of the schedule which saw him shed four kilos in weight.
“It’s tough and we’re not used to it but we found out in pre-season how it was going to be,” Ayling said. “We know what we’re going to be doing and that we’re going to be in pretty much every day so it doesn’t bother us. It’s no worries. We’ve lost weight but it’s fat we’re losing, not muscle.
“We’ve been putting on muscle. We’ve done our scans and all the things that should have gone up have gone up. All the things that should have gone down had gone down. There haven’t been any boys who’ve put weight back on or haven’t reached their targets.
“We can’t be carrying that extra weight around. The way he (Bielsa) wants us to work and play, the games come thick and fast and there’s no good in carrying an extra two or three kilos. He’s doing it to help us. You do feel lighter. In every training session I go out to learn something new.
“You can’t get away from the players or the teams this manager’s worked with. I know he’s the biggest coach I’ve worked with so far and I know he’ll be the biggest head coach I’ll ever work under.”
Ayling has been an attacking right-back throughout his time at Leeds but Bielsa is pushing that side of his game further, yielding his first goal for the club against Rotherham last month.
Ayling’s celebration was delayed as referee Robert Jones took an age to rule that his diving header had crossed the line.
“He spoiled my moment,” Ayling joked. “I had this big celebration lined up. Then I panicked and just did some heel flicks. The heel flicks are here to stay now.”