Fortunately – and here I’m touching wood (now now, missus) – I’ve never been in a serious car accident, although what I’ve learnt from the various minor ones seems applicable to Liverpool’s current predicament.
My worst accident was 12 years ago, when someone pulled across the dual carriageway into my path, whilst they were looking in the wrong direction. I was doing 30mph (passing a police station, no less), and only saw them emerge, heading at me from the side, at the last moment. I swerved, but got hit before my brakes made any dent on my speed. I got mild whiplash, and a somewhat bigger dent was made on my car; the front wing smashed in, the wheel crumpled. My point is not so much the accident, but the affect it had on me.
Now, this was nothing like the smash that my mum had in 1966, a few years before I was born, where she ended up watching the World Cup Final on a hospital ward with a broken back, broken arm and a broken cheekbone, as she lay in traction; this just a few years after her sister was killed when a lorry careered into the motorbike on which she was riding pillion.
And I certainly didn’t have any post-traumatic stress from a smash that I casually walked away from (although I did get an insight into twisted world of the raggedy woman who crashed into me, who admitted fault but later said I was doing 50mph and “all over the road”; witnesses and accident investigators backed up my story, as it was the truth. This was, of course, before we were in the post-truth age).
However, for a while it affected my driving. You may have had similar experiences.
I wasn’t scared to get back into a car; they tell you to get back on a horse if you fall off, and it’s easy enough, unless the horse has possibly trampled you (maybe you punched it it the face, or threw a hamburger at it?), or it flung you off over a cliff. But whereas before I’d seen the car as almost part of me – an unconscious extension of my body, as, seated calmly and comfortably (in true Alan Partridge style), I regularly undertook the almost unconscious acts of steering, braking, turning – I was now hyperconscious of its dimensions, its bulkiness. I was driving a huge heap of metal.
I also became aware of every little thing on the road, and even on the pavements – as if it could pull or run out in front of me without warning, like the crazy woman had. The accident had affected my basic, routine and well-trained behaviours.
I wasn’t a nervous wreck, hyper-vigilantly looking for ludicrous potential threats – why’s that fucking hedgehog looking so shifty? – whilst driving at 8mph, just in case. But it was a transformation from the relaxed, normal way I drove; and the way I would soon drive again, without even noticing that I was driving that way again.
But there was that period of increased anxiety, as if I was a learner driver again and everything had to be carefully ruminated. The car no longer felt as naturally part of me as it had before. I could no longer easily revert to the kind of autopilot that you have to switch onto, in order to not be caught up in every little thing.
My sense is that something like this happened to Liverpool midway through the second half at Bournemouth last week. Until then it was a kind of autopilot – different levels of exertion, but no great sense of panic. However, once the HGV that was Bournemouth’s late comeback absolutely ploughed into the Reds defence (who were not paying due attention), some serious psychological damage was done.
It will wear off; but it won’t wear off immediately. It’s not quite like what we see with someone like Jamie Vardy, who hadn’t scored for 16 games and then got a hat-trick; defensive confidence – a team’s sense of its own stability – cannot come flowing back quite so easily.
Over time it’ll become the past, and keeping clean sheets – or, at least, winning games – will become something that just happens again. Because, as much as Liverpool looked to get Bournemouth out of their system with a bright start today – which they did – it only led to the anxiety of “what if we fuck this up again?”. (And, even worse, it’ll be at home.)
People said that Liverpool eased off against West Ham after taking the lead, but I felt it was the pressure of having a lead to throw away – which is always seen as such a crime in football. (I have written extensively in the past on the issue of pressure switching within matches, and often use the 2006 FA Cup Final as an example, on another drawn game with the Hammers.) Prior to Bournemouth, my sense is that Liverpool would have just gone on and battered West Ham; but today they were cautious after going 1-0 up, scared to attack, scared to defend.
Liverpool badly wanted the lead. But they didn’t want the lead. To introduce another metaphor, maybe this is like being a fielder in cricket. You want the ball to come to you, in the air, so you can catch it. You want the glory, the involvement. But if you’ve just dropped two easy chances, while you may still hope of a third to redeem yourself, you probably prefer it if the batsman slogged it up in the air on the other boundary so you don’t have to face up to it.
Liverpool have to go ahead in games in order to win them, but going ahead can then lead to this sense of edginess based on the recent past. Few opposition fans sing songs about how you lost a game 1-0; they do, however, tend to sing about being several goals ahead and “fucking it up”.
Months after they happened, the two-goal lead surrendered at Southampton, or the three-goal second half collapse in the Europa League Final, won’t have been troubling the team. But they would have made a mark; just as coming from behind to beat Borussia Dortmund had some kind of galvanising effect, and made it easier to envisage being 2-0 down as a surmountable task.
Adding Joel Matip and moving James Milner into the defence in place of the erratic Alberto Moreno became part of the solution that allowed Liverpool, as a team, to feel more invincible. Whatever happened in the past became almost irrelevant; this was a new Liverpool FC, particularly by the time Matip had made his debut and Milner had settled into the role.
But here, Matip was stepping back into a team that, in his absence, had royally fucked up last week, and the nerves were catching, not least from Dejan Lovren, who is starting to resemble Martin Skrtel in his ability to mix periods of impressive form followed by spells where he’s all over the place. (Perhaps it’s time for Ragnar Klavan to get a run alongside Matip?)
The Cameroonian got his feet in a mess for the second West Ham goal, and bamboozled – almost dummied – his own goalkeeper, who had to work out why the centre-back was suddenly not in a position to deal with what seemed a routine ball.
Perhaps Loris Karius isn’t helping – indeed, right now he seems like a nervous, freshly imported young keeper who, like David James many years before him, has his every mistake (and even what may not even be mistakes) scrutinised as if they were major crimes.
James went on to become a much better keeper after he left the club, in part as he got better as he got older (as keepers tend to do, usually up until the age of 32/33), but also because he was out of the limelight. (Apart from when playing for England, where his errors were highlighted and his nerves returned. He did pretty well for England but was never fully commanding.)
I’ve always said that teams like Liverpool and Manchester United need especially good goalkeepers – not because they are busy (they usually aren’t) – but because of the psychological pressure they get put under. (See the problems Alex Ferguson had with so many of his picks between Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Saar; and how for a year or two that included David de Gea.) It’s a merciless position to play at a big club when things aren’t going well. (Maybe Arsenal are getting closer again now that they finally have a reliable keeper?)
On the evidence so far it’s tough to say if Karius has what it takes; he’s making relatively minor errors – no complete gaffes like Darren Randolph for Divock Origi’s goal; the spill last week for the Nathan Ake goal was from a vicious shot, not a soft cross, and the free-kick today was not on his side of the wall (even if he could still have done better). But he’s playing just like I drove for a week or so after my aforementioned car crash. He’s just not quite at it, in contrast to the way that he would have been at Mainz after he’d established himself. He’s not yet established himself in English football, and with Liverpool, as it’s early days; so nerves beget errors, errors beget nerves.
Errors are spreading throughout the team, however, and the form is falling away – which I will now go on to cover in the second half of this article.
The second part of this article is for subscribers only. It’s a piece of two halves.