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The psychological margin - The Red Debate
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Last summer I wrote a piece about physical margins and how this team have them all over the pitch.

For some time I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up piece about the psychological margin, and as we head into the Champions League Quarter Finals and the final games of a beautifully poised Premier League for 18/19, it seems an applicable time to do so.

I’ll start this piece by asking you to cast your mind to the fantastic docu-movie, Free Solo. If you haven’t seen it, it follows now legendary climber Alex Honnold on his journey towards becoming the first man to climb El Capitan (Yosemite National Park) without a rope. It’s a stunning piece of film making in which Honnold achieves something quite astonishing. Tense throughout, his peers marvel at his mental resolve. So much so that they put him through a functional MRI scanner & look at the neurochemical activities in the stress centres in his brain. What they see, essentially, is that his central nervous system has a reduced response to stress or fear. He’s as unflappable as they come.

Alex Honnold free solo climbs El Capitan’s Freerider in Yosemite National Park. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

And what of stress? Many Liverpool fans have said that this season is, so far, horrific for their health. The pressure, even as a helpless onlooking fan, feels immense.

But that’s where this point unravels, in a two-fold manner. What Klopp has done to the fanbase over the years has indoctrinated in us his values, not only by creating a team that consistently wins football matches, but also through directly and indirectly asking us to join him in his show of faith. As fans, are we helpless onlookers? Or does the transference of our negative energy have an impact on the players? Can collective belief and expectation do the opposite? How many times has Klopp asked for our support & positivity? After Lucas Moura’s equaliser at Anfield Klopp talked about it being the best Anfield response to conceding a goal in his time here. Was it? I don’t know? Does he think it’s an important message for us to read between the lines? Absolutely.

Klopp leading a show of gratitude to the crowd after a 2-2 draw against West Brom in December 2015 after Divock Origi’s 95th minute equaliser. It felt like a significant moment in Klopp’s gradual modelling of belief.

There are several ways to be a leader. Football is a wonderful medium through which to exhibit some of the many types. The emotionally understated geniuses, the militant disciplinarians, the leaders by example. Then there’s Klopp. Klopp leads with unbridled emotion; an emotion which seems to overshadow his tactical nous at times. He leads with a belief in his players; a contagious sense that if he thinks they can do it, then they do too themselves.

How many times this season have we pulled through, counting on our mental strength & resilience? Perhaps the most impressive aspect of our astonishing points haul has been the relentless nature of it. We’ve relied on collective resolve as much as individual brilliance at times.

One thing that has rung true in recent weeks has been the number of opponents making mistakes. It had me thinking about the pressure cooker environment of football and in particular, this top of the Premier League football – the eyes of the world on Liverpool and their counterparts. There’s more to the multiple big errors opposing sides concede against the top football teams in the world than just slices of luck. There’s that constant feeling of impending doom that clinging on against a team you know aren’t going to relent brings. As pressure mounts and the doubt creeps in, even the most regularly assured humans make mistakes. This Liverpool side, and increasingly fanbase, are mastering the art of ‘turning the screw’ on opponents, forcing errors in the latter stages against weary bodies and subsequently weakened minds. It’s a mental game, this football.

We’ve seen Mo Salah play with the weight of the world on his shoulders & speak publically about how he’s under tighter scrutiny than other goalscorers. We’ve seen Naby Keita look like he was about to explode on the league in his opening few fixtures, only to seem to wilt and seemingly regress psychologically. We’ve seen Fabinho looking like he was totally out of his depth at this level away at Arsenal. We’ve seen Jordan Henderson get pilloried by some time and time again. But we’ve seen Klopp talk them all up. We’ve seen Klopp divert attention. We’ve seen Klopp protect his players. And we’ve seen the fans repeatedly reflect on how Klopp gives his players time, asking for patience and belief in them and him. We’ve seen it work.

Klopp’s talked to us before about recruiting the right type of player. The type of player who can show the “positive traits of being angry”. A player who can keep their cool in the toughest of circumstances. A player whom you could put through a functional MRI scanner and, like Honnold, would probably have a diminished stress response.  Alisson and van Dijk just resonate a calmness and assuredness. They’ve been bought in for more than just their footballing ability.

Functional MRI imagining – amygdala responses to threats, or unpleasant stimuli. Alex Honnold’s scans showed a reduced emotional response to threat. I’d imagine this would apply to Alisson’s, van Dijk’s, Salah’s, Fabinho’s and Jurgen Klopp’s amongst others.

Jurgen Klopp has masterminded this change in mentality, both on and off the pitch; his positive affirmations and infectious motivational speaking. There’s something of the psychologist about him.

There’s a German term, used in clinical psychology in fact, that comes to mind – ‘gestalt’. It essentially translates to the sense that the whole is more that the sum of its parts.

This Liverpool side has some truly great parts, but buoyed by belief, they’re becoming a rather special whole.