Jurgen Klopp sidesteps mind games, pressure as expectations around Liverpool grow
Are Liverpool really second favourites to win the Premier League next season? There are plenty claiming Jurgen Klopp's side will be Manchester City's closest challengers.
Former player Steve McManaman predicted they would finish second, while also mischievously placing Manchester United outside his top four.
Such bravado won't have been quelled by Liverpool beating both Manchester clubs on American soil recently.
This comes on top of some feverish reaction to the club's latest spending. Preseason games generally feature strange line-ups, with managers focussing on fitness, so they can't really be regarded as proof of anything.
That didn't stop one national newspaper from saying a 2-1 win against Manchester City gave Liverpool "bragging rights," while another labelled their manager "Moneybags Klopp." That was part of the headline above Jose Mourinho's latest mind games, suggesting everyone should demand Liverpool win the league.
All rather bizarre, isn't it? There is no point pretending Liverpool's transfers have not improved their chances of having another fine season, but there is a determined attempt by outsiders to push them front and centre of the fight against Manchester City's domination.
This is not just about setting someone up to subsequently knock them down, in time-honoured fashion. Pressure can build, often lethally. It's any manager's job to conduct a balancing act between relieving that burden while simultaneously boosting players' confidence enough to do what they are supposed to. It's a tough needle to thread.
Klopp mocked Mourinho's mind games, feigning disinterest, yet there's something to be said for the Liverpool boss wanting to avoid too much expectation being heaped upon his team.
He speaks of playing enjoyable football and having fun, almost as though they were equivalent to success. He surely realises that can only work for so long before a club this big expects significant success of some sort -- certainly a trophy.
If Klopp had Mourinho's reputation for manipulation, his focus on style could have been picked up as a sly dig at United fans' oft-expressed dissatisfaction with what they are watching. It was interesting nobody picked up on that and ran with it.
All the inference during coverage of Klopp's transfer activity is that he has somehow joined the ranks of the mega-spenders. This was most evident when past remarks about United's record signing of Paul Pogba were offered as "proof" of Klopp's hypocrisy.
Liverpool raised a lot of funds through the sale of Philippe Coutinho, which seems to have been largely -- and conveniently -- forgotten. If Klopp manages to sell some more of his unwanted players soon, he may still be able to claim a pitifully low net spend when the season begins.
The concept of "net spend" is one that draws ridicule towards Liverpool fans who dwell on it constantly. It crudely infers their manager can't be reasonably expected to compete with others who get to spend what they wish without the unpleasant burden of recouping it through sales.
Klopp's dismissal of Mourinho's mind games won't erase the memory of his own attempt to faze Antonio Conte in the middle of the 2016-17 season, either.
He claimed Chelsea would be worried that, despite them winning 13 matches in a row, they still hadn't shaken Liverpool off. A month later, the Reds were further behind the runaway leaders, an outside chance of a title race extinguished by poor results.
No one is above trying a little psychology, yet Klopp's comments never caused the stumble. Words should not matter. When the real action begins it will all be about performance. Who said what and why will be irrelevant.
With the predictions of all football experts soon to emerge, it's unlikely anybody will see past Manchester City for the title. Liverpool bought well recently, but they did finish 25 points behind the champions.
Someone like Klopp needs to manage expectations as well as players, knowing secretly that only works in the short term. Even attractive football and a regular place in the top four should not be a recipe for managerial survival, though Arsene Wenger certainly had a good stab at it.
Despite not being champions for 28 years, Liverpool's past pushes down hard on its modern heroes. Klopp in fairness always acknowledges it while insisting he can add to the history in his own unique way.
Football fans should dream, otherwise what's the point of it all? Whether you are a Pep Guardiola, who spends without fear of losing stars, or a Klopp who's ever mindful of vultures circling his biggest talent, the aim is the same -- to be the best.
No Liverpool manager has ever hit his head on a glass ceiling, where he and the owners did everything possible to succeed but still fell short. There may be bigger obstacles now than in Bob Paisley's time, but are they truly insurmountable?
Through shrewd transfers and good coaching, Klopp keeps Liverpool moving forward, but the pressure of making further progress increases.
What the media or his managerial adversaries may say will ultimately be the least of his concerns.