Liverpool are on top of the Premier League but can they stay there?

After winning their opening eight games Liverpool stretched their lead at the top of the Premier League to eight points. However, being clear at the top is no guarantee of success explains psychologist Steve Sharman

Last season Liverpool were seven points clear of Manchester City at the turn of the year but still finished second.

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In 2013-14, they sat top with three games remaining, five points ahead of Chelsea, and six ahead of Manchester City. 

Once again the Reds and in particular Steven Gerrard slipped up and were consigned to second place. 

Perhaps the most monumental collapse however was Newcastle in 1995-96, when the Magpies’ 12-point lead was overhauled by Manchester United, a capitulation encapsulated by Kevin Keegan’s infamous ‘I would love it’ rant.

But what causes an individual, or team, to collapse under pressure – to choke when it matters most? 

Anxiety

Players with high anxiety and low self-confidence are more likely to struggle in high pressure situations, such as a title run-in. 

High trait anxiety impedes working memory, reducing the capacity for instinctive decision-making within a match situation, impacting individual performance levels. 

When a mistake can be critical, an anxious player with low confidence is less likely to attempt high-risk/high-reward strategies to address the poor performance, such as an ambitious pass or long-range strike on goal. 

High anxiety and subsequent low confidence explain why some players appear to ‘freeze’ in big matches when the stakes are high and cause them to make otherwise inexplicable errors, such as Loris Karius in the 2018 Champions League final. 

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Attention

When anxiety is increased, players’ attention can be more easily diverted; players pay more attention automatically to irrelevant stimuli, which in turns reduces attention to relevant stimuli. 

Distractions can be both external and internal so for example a player could distracted by the magnitude of the game, or the atmosphere of the crowd, rather than focusing on the immediate match situation; the reduction in attention could mean a player out of position or not marking tightly enough. 

Internal distractions can include a player becoming fixated on the consequences of actions within a game, rather than the actions themselves. 

For example, a striker may opt to square the ball to a teammate for fear of being criticised for surrendering possession, instead of taking on a shooting opportunity. 

Increased attention to negative thoughts and distracting factors can lead to a decrease in performance. 

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Self-focus

Self-focus refers to the conscious allocation of attention to movement execution, which disrupts a player’s instinct and natural movement. 

In high pressure situations, keen to avoid mistakes, conscious, intensive focus is applied to the execution of a behaviour that a player has learned, even when the behaviour has become fully automated. 

Therefore, when under pressure, a highly self-focused player will become less naturally instinctive and more conservative, increasing conscious focus on automatic physical movements, such as simply controlling the ball.

The decrease in natural and instinctive movement can be detrimental to a player’s individual and a team’s overall performance.

The Team Effect

Premier League teams are well-drilled machines; whether executing a high press or holding a defensive line, the contribution of every individual is vital. 

If the performance of just one player drops below the required level, a negative mentality can quickly spread. 

Repercussions for the whole team can be devastating, as demonstrated in previous Premier League title races. 

There is no doubt the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are acutely aware of this and will work to reduce anxiety, focus attention, and minimise self-focus, even at this early stage of the season to avoid a catastrophic collapse when the pressure is really on. 

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