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Liverpool and Man City: Shedding light on the psychology of a Premier League title race

Raghav Mehta
386   //    14 Apr 2019, 20:20 IST

Title races often involve immense pressure, and no matter how competent one is both physically and mentally, it is only a matter of time before the nervousness felt by the supporters transfers over to the players as well.

The two main contenders for the current Premier League title are Liverpool and Man City, two sides that found themselves in a similar situation 5 years ago.

On 27 April 2014, Liverpool fell at home to Chelsea and Man City went on to win at Crystal Palace on a day which turned the Premier League title race on its head.

Liverpool, with Steven Gerrard's infamous slip, which ultimately proved to be so crucial, were beaten 2-0 at Anfield, while City won at Selhurst Park by the same scoreline before going on to win the league as the Premier League title continued to elude the Reds.

Steven Gerrard's slip was the stuff of nightmares for Liverpool fans.
Steven Gerrard's slip was the stuff of nightmares for Liverpool fans.

Had Liverpool won and City lost that day, Brendan Rodgers' side would have been nine points clear of City, who had only three games to play.

Five years on, the same two protagonists are again challenging to become champions and face the same opponents at the same venues this Sunday - only with quadruple-chasing City playing first this time around - on what could be another title-defining day.

In 2014, Liverpool's staff included renowned sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who would make frequent visits and attend home games to help the players deal with the pressures of the title challenge.

He opens up that he is "watching with the eyes of somebody who is analysing to see if people are optimising their time on the pitch or allowing things to distract or displace them from what they are meant to be doing".

So what does he make of this year's edition of the title race?


How can you pin-point players who are feeling pressure?

Liverpool were in a seven-point lead over City when the two sides met in January, only to see that reduced to four with a 2-1 defeat to the Citizens. City then suffered a surprise loss to Newcastle only for Liverpool to then further go on a run of 4 points out of a possible 12.

City go into Sunday's fixtures just two points behind Liverpool, but with a game in hand, and - with the pressure only set to increase during the season run-in - what are the signs of a player that is struggling to cope?

"From a football perspective, the most common that I found were, for example, at the beginning of a match people take some time to warm up into it," Peters told BBC Sport.

"What some players say is you get this warm-up feeling. You want to try to over-ride that because that is psychological rather than just physical as they have already warmed up physically.

"It's also not accepting a decision by the referee when it's been made. That doesn't often help people."

Misplaced passes, missing chances and failing to take the right option are also "the kind of thing you would question".

In terms of coping with the pressure, Peters said there is no generalised answer for players, but that, just like they would do for the physical and tactical sides of the game, there should also be emphasis placed on the mental preparation.

"It's no different psychologically. You look at all eventualities and then start making plans for that which work for you so you are not caught off guard," he said.

"For most people in sports psychology, we'd advise that you actually focus on just the process of what you are doing rather than an outcome and whether you are going to win or lose.

"That is the ideal because your maximum chance of getting somewhere is to just focus on the process and not the consequences.

Losing out on the League Title in 2014 was 'gutting', said Peters
Losing out on the League Title in 2014 was 'gutting', said Peters

Leading the pack or chasing - which is better?

The lead at the top between Liverpool and City has changed leaders a total of 19 times this season, with the Reds having been on top for 129 days (as of 14 April) and City for 109.

Also, the teams do not play at the exact same time again this season until 12 May, which is the final day, meaning one or the other will always have a chance of seizing a temporary initiative at the expense of their rival.

"Let's say you were a sportsperson who I was working with and you say, 'when I'm in a leading position it gains confidence for me'. We would probably maximise on that but still get you to focus on process," explained Peters.

"However, you could equally say to me, 'when I'm in a lead position I just start losing it. I start to feel uneasy and clam up because I feel like I could lose this advantage and I realise then that will put me on the back foot.'

"In an ideal situation, if you were able to channel all of your energies into what you have to do to win in any sport, then the chances will maximise - your probability is higher that you are going to win.

"If you distract yourself by looking at how you are doing, analysing or looking at how the other team are doing, thinking again about the consequence, you are much more likely to make poor decisions because you are much more likely to be emotionally driven.

"Most people, when they're emotional, don't make as good a decision or a rational decision as when they are in logical mode."

How do Man City or Liverpool deal with congested fixtures?

Manchester City are three games into an April, in which they play eight matches as they challenge for an unprecedented quadruple by adding the titles of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup to the League Cup crown they already possess.

That schedule could yet be added to if they manage to come back from a 1-0 first-leg deficit in their Champions League quarter-final against Tottenham and move on to the semi-finals.

"In any sport when you get such a run there is a risk of burning out because it just keeps coming," said Peters.

"It's very important that you see it almost as a hurdles race where you are not meant to be clearing three or four hurdles at a time; you have got 10 to jump."

City coach Pep Guardiola has described his team as a "machine", which Peters said is "a perfect example".

"It's a good way of looking at it," Peters said. "You just expect the machine to run - just keep oiling it - rather than start to think, 'What could happen? We might get exhausted. We might get mentally tired.'

"That's not really that helpful. It's much more helpful to have a positive outlook, say this is the plan and follow the plan."

What is the impact of late goals

Liverpool have scored a total of 15 goals in the final 10 minutes of league matches this season. That converts to earning them an extremely vital seven extra points, as opposed to City's nine goals, resulting in no extra points for the Citizens.

According to Peters, late goals can have a very demoralising effect on the team if the outcome you built up to does not materialise when the final whistle goes.

"You go through effectively a mini grief reaction because what you have really done is set yourself up for this," he said.

"You have an expectation, which is realistic and reasonable, that you are going to gain these points; they're going to not get the points. You've made all that up, but actually it's a bit premature.

"You've jumped ahead of yourself because you are saying 'if this happens', and then when it doesn't happen. Like anything in life, if it doesn't go the way we want it to, you go through disappointment.

"You react to it emotionally, which is pretty healthy and natural, and then you have to say, 'let's work through those emotions and process them'.

Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk celebrates as Liverpool score a 93rd minute winner against city rivals Everton
Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk celebrates as Liverpool score a 93rd minute winner against city rivals Everton

"It's the same as when we didn't win the league with Liverpool. It was a gutting experience because you built up all season and there was an anticipation that it could happen.

"You are always going to form expectations, and that means when they don't come to fruition you go through a disappointment. You just have to get over it, regroup and get on again."

Almost a defining characteristic of the Premier League over the years, this year's title race is traditionally shaping up to be an absolute nail-biter, and even with just a handful of games to go in the remainder of the season, you would be pretty gutsy to place any bets on either side taking the crown home.

Both sets of fans too are gearing up for a title celebration, with the belief that their side has what it takes to bring it home at this crucial time, and you can expect there to be no shortage of passion in remaining matches of this season for either side.