It can get lonely out in front, so Jurgen Klopp keeps being told. Leading the pack, rather than chasing it, comes with a different burden and many wonder how Liverpool will cope.
Pep Guardiola, for one, has wasted no time in publicly pointing out how the atmosphere changed for Manchester City last February when it became apparent his team were going to win the title. It is, of course, a tactic to turn up the heat on Klopp and his players.
History is laced with episodes of leaders faltering in the Premier League. No footballing story is more famous than the one of Newcastle in 1996, when Manchester United overhauled a 12-point deficit.
But what about Arsenal’s implosion in 2003? They had led United by eight points before a 2-2 draw with Bolton led the usually urbane Arsene Wenger to take his tie off on the touchline, so great was the pressure.
As Liverpool head to the Etihad tomorrow — for the campaign’s biggest game to date — many can see a similar tale unfolding.
Why wouldn’t they? City are a magnificent side and a seven-point gap with 17 matches to go is not beyond them. They would not be out of the reckoning, either, if they were to lose to Liverpool. When your rivals have class — as City do — it is dangerous to assume anything.
The narrative that is starting to build around Liverpool, though, is something Klopp has found intriguing. People may feel he is reading from a script in press conferences when he says nobody is looking further than the next game but that is the message he gives to his squad, too.
‘People don’t see it but I’m a pretty calm person,’ Klopp (right) said before Arsenal’s visit on Saturday. ‘Not during the 90 minutes, obviously, but in general. I don’t get that easily excited about different things. When we are here, it’s only about us.’
That point needs emphasising. On matchday, Klopp can be like a volcano waiting to erupt. He stands outside Liverpool’s dressing room sizing up the opposition and letting them know he is ready for battle. To see him on the touchline, all waving arms and shouting, calm is the last word you would pick for him.
Back at Melwood, however, he is methodical and has a way of getting his point across that doesn’t require bellowing or bawling. If he wants to make a point, it is done without emotion.
‘If we lose a game, people will see it as slipping through our fingers again or whatever,’ Klopp said. ‘That’s just not our situation. We have to train, we have to work, we have to play, we have to fight, all these things and try to make the best of this season. All of the rest are stories.
‘It’s interesting because people read it, they like it. But for us, nothing changes. We were not the hunters and now we are not the hunted. We are just a team who want to play the best season of our lives.’
It is that simple. Whether it is good enough to end Liverpool’s quest to become champions can only be guessed at this point — the omens, it should be noted, are promising as no team with a six-point lead on New Year’s Day has failed — but Klopp has been here before.
He led Borussia Dortmund to two Bundesliga triumphs. The first in 2011 came with anxieties. A 15-point lead in March was whittled down to seven by eventual runners-up Bayer Leverkusen, as Dortmund lost three of their final nine games. The following season, however, was imperious. They had lost three of their opening six matches but a 28-game unbeaten run from September saw them retain their title by eight points from Bayern Munich. With that in mind, what follows now will not take Klopp by surprise.
If anything, Liverpool have shown they are well equipped to deal with the frenzy. They took over in first place on December 8, when beating Bournemouth 4-0, and have won each of the six matches that have followed.
Should that record be extended to seven in Manchester, their position as favourites will strengthen — and show they are ready for the long run for home.Daily Mail