Liverpool are one of the best sides in world football right now and their excellence extends over all areas of the pitch, even throw-ins.
Some teams are said to be great at set pieces but what that really means is that they’re a threat from corners and wide free-kicks that function as pseudo-corners. That’s the extent of the analysis. The other types of set pieces are largely ignored by most teams, but not Liverpool.
The Reds are famed for their attention to detail and nowhere is that better exemplified than in the fact that they have a dedicated throw-in coach. Thomas Gronnemark is a 44-year-old Danish athlete (plus author and speaker) who is pioneering a new field, working with a number of clubs across Europe – chief among them the Premier League champions-elect.
Throw-ins, Grønnemark contends, are a chiefly undervalued part of football; “if you’re losing the ball at a throw-in, it has the same consequence as with a normal pass on the pitch, you are risking that the opponents are scoring a goal. And if you keep the possession, you have control, then you can create chances and score goals.”
“When I’m going to see a Champions League match, with just two teams, [and] then the throw-in level is as if I’m going to a Sunday league match, and that’s crazy to think about when you see how many billions of dollars, pounds, euros, the different top teams have,” he tells Squawka in an exclusive interview.
“There is a lack of knowledge around throw-ins and that’s my dream to change that, not only in pro football but for amateur and youth coaches all around the world.”
It’s a dream he’s realising through his work with Liverpool, where he has played his part in the Reds going from helter skelter side to one of the most ruthlessly efficient teams the world has ever seen.
“In the 2017/18 season, before I came to Liverpool, [they] were number 18 out of 20 in the Premier League at throw-ins under pressure, where all the players are marked, with a possession of 45.4%. And in my first season with Liverpool, we improved up to 68.4% and went from number 18 in the Premier League to number one in the Premier League.”
In 2017/18 Liverpool‘s total possession during the season was 60.77% with a passing accuracy of 83.76%. In 2018/19 with Grønnemark on board, those numbers rose to 62.17% and 84.45% respectively.
One could surmise the passing improvement was solely responsible for the possession jump, but then passing accuracy fell between 2018/19 and this season (it’s currently 83.9%) and yet Liverpool‘s possession has improved again, climbing to 62.97%. It seems highly likely that the throw-ins must be playing a part, and even if it’s a small part it can make a huge difference.
So what exactly is Grønnemark teaching Liverpool? What is his philosophy that has helped give the Reds this edge? Well, he best sums his philosophy up with the title of his upcoming book: “The Long, Fast and Clever Throw-in.”
The Long Throw-in
Long throws are what most people think of when they think of specialised throw-ins, Rory Delap hurling the ball through the Stoke air, tormenting defenders across the Premier League to the extent that some pundits thought they would somehow be a match for Barcelona.
Grønnemark doesn’t dismiss the value of Delap-style long throws, but “primarily if you are a big, physical team, really only doing set pieces.” However that doesn’t mean that long throws aren’t a key part of his philosophy that he coaches everywhere he works. Essentially, it’s not all about scoring goals.
“The reason why I’m coaching the long throw-in in clubs like Liverpool, is because the throw-in area grows the longer throw-in you have, and it’s really important because if you have a greater throw-in area then you can also throw to more teammates.”
Giving a specific example of how he’s helped a player increase their throw-in range, he references how “Andy Robertson has improved from 19 to 27 metres, improving his throw-in area by over 500 square metres.” This massive area of pitch into which Robertson can accurately throw the ball means it is so much harder to put him under pressure when he has the ball in his hands, so Liverpool can more easily retain possession which, as mentioned, is a key part of what he wants to do.
The Fast Throw-in
‘Corner taken quickly’ has become a meme amongst Liverpool fans, and Grønnemark wants throw-ins to be taken with the same kind of urgency because they can obviously unleash counter-attacks by catching opponents unaware.
But that doesn’t mean that teams should be all-go all the time because of the risk of turning the ball over with a sloppy throw into a dangerous area; “the fast throw-in is also about learning when to throw fast but also when to have patience.”
The Clever Throw-in
“The clever throw-ins [are] all about how can we create space so we don’t lose possession, or we keep the ball and keep control and after that, creating chances and scoring goals. This is the final piece of the puzzle, the one which gives the players understanding of what to do and when to do it by training and preparing them for a massive number of permutations.
“I’m working with three different zones and 40 to 50 throw-in tools. Of the three zones we have like 10, 15, 20 tools, it means that if we are trying to create space in the near area, if we can’t do that because the opponents are marking that space, then we know that there are two, three, four other options.”
19m → 27m = 500㎡
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 8, 2020
Adding creativity (and the value of luck)
Grønnemark doesn’t just want players to be robots running through a list of options before finding the one that is most effective, because football doesn’t work that way. The game is a living, breathing entity and so any philosophy needs to allow for that, and Grønnemark encourages players to improvise.
Take Liverpool‘s game-winning goal against Wolves back in January. A late Roberto Firmino effort finishing off a move that began with, you guessed it, a Trent Alexander-Arnold throw-in.
Alexander-Arnold has the ball about halfway inside the Wolves half, and there’s no immediate danger as they cut off all but the short throw to Jordan Henderson. Except thanks to Grønnemark’s work, Alexander-Arnold is looking well beyond the normal range for throws and making the clever move. So he flings it a good 15 yards downfield, over Wolves defenders and to Firmino making a diagonal run.
As Firmino moves towards the corner flag, Mohamed Salah moves infield and Takumi Minamino runs down the flank. The move here is to ensure that Firmino can bring it down and then play it to Minamino who is moving into the space Salah has vacated.
But Firmino sees that Minamino is marked, and makes a snap decision to feint a header. This lets the ball run through to Salah who, after some lovely dribbling, gets dispossessed but by now Firmino has circled around and is in a great position whilst Wolves scramble to cover Salah. Henderson plays Firmino in, and bang, goal.
Now, everything up to the Firmino feint is clearly Grønnemark’s domain, but after that the players take over and create something wonderful. The Dane says: “the reason why we can score this goal is, first of all because we are trying to create space with one of my tools and after that space creation you can say Bobby Firmino improvises with his own creativity and fantasy.”
Not just Firmino, but Salah’s wonderful dribbling as well. These improvisational skills could have fallen flat and a well organised Wolves cleared the ball, but they didn’t and Liverpool scored; “that’s the way it is in football sometimes.”
But crucially it all happened because of the platform Grønnemark’s work gives Liverpool. That initial long throw from Alexander-Arnold and the specific movements of Firmino, Salah, Henderson and Minamino.
The goal against Wolves was one of 13 that the Reds have scored from throw-ins this season – a number that includes all kinds of throw-ins, three of which were awarded to the opponent. So Grønnemark’s methods really do deliver for Liverpool, they have made players smarter and more able to take advantage of set pieces, scoring goals and retaining possession.
In a recent Champions League match with Bayern Munich, Grønnemark remarks on the difference between the sides throws: “We had around 70% possession from throw-ins under pressure with Liverpool and that’s really good for us, pretty normal for us, but Bayern Munich had only 28%. If they couldn’t throw it fast, and that’s a good strategy if you have the room, then they really didn’t have a strategy.”
Liverpool have had 664 throw-ins so far this Premier League season compared to just 191 corners. The chances to stack up the marginal gains throw-ins can give you are there in abundance, which is why; “in most games with Liverpool, we are 20, 30, 40% better than our opponents at throw-ins under pressure.”
Being so much better than your opponent in a specific area of the game gives you an advantage, and when you can dominate lots of specific areas then what happens is you become what Liverpool are: one of the most dominant sides on the planet.
As things evolve, could Liverpool ever adopt the Delap-style cannon-throw? Grønnemark doesn’t think so despite the presence of Joe Gomez, who has a massive throw-in and is capable of throwing the ball 37.20 metres, according to the Dane.
“I can’t say we never would do it. But if we want to score a lot of goals from long throw-ins you have to take a lot of long throw-ins in every game. And you don’t want to see Liverpool take 10 long throw-ins in a game at Anfield.”
However, the Reds are still head and shoulders above the rest with just Alexander-Arnold and Robertson on throw-in duty. And that’s just fine for Grønnemark, who’s in this to develop the throw-in as an art-form.
“That’s my biggest dream, that everybody, and not only the coaches and staff in the clubs I’m coaching, but also the fans around the world can see the beauty in throw-ins.”
If he keeps on working wonders with Liverpool, it surely won’t be long before the whole world appreciates the mesmerising magnificence of the long, fast and clever throw-in.
Visit thomasgronnemark.com to find out more about Thomas Grønnemark’s work and upcoming projects.