“The big breakthrough came in early July 2018 when Jürgen Klopp called me,” Thomas Gronnemark, Liverpool’s throw-in expert, tells These Football Times. The Danish coach is undoubtedly the leading global authority helping football clubs maximise their strength in this area of the game.
Where once the sideline restart was a neglected and overlooked part of the sport, Gronnemark has since begun reshaping the conversation, forcing many people to sit up and take notice. “My big goal of course is to help the clubs I’m coaching, but my biggest goal is to develop football so that throw-ins are better,” Gronnemark explains.
His appointment at the Reds raised a few eyebrows when it first took place. Some questioned the value of the role and wondered what impact such a position could have on the club’s future.
Brought in during the summer two years ago, just a few weeks after the Merseyside outfit had suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League final, it was an interesting move. It could easily have been perceived as a panicked push by beaten finalists to make a quick gain without any deep thought behind the move, but in reality it turned out to be something much more positive than that – an analytical marvel.
Although the club and Gronnemark have endured plenty of questions and flak from outside, they have ultimately had the last laugh. Liverpool have improved many aspects of their performance in order to become Premier League champions-elect and Club World Cup holders, as well as Champions League winners, but the drafting in of Gronnemark has certainly been one of the most eye-catching manoeuvres.
Gronnemark is an influential figure who is helping to recalibrate peoples’ perceptions of throw-ins, and the overall game as a result, but he is also modest in not wanting to blow his effect on Liverpool’s success out of proportion.
Liverpool have fostered a cohesive, siege mentality that pits them against the rest of the world. Under Klopp, the Kopites have seen their side blossom from a gegenpressing machine that came close to honours against all the odds into a silverware-addicted club who crave win after win.
But how much of an impact has Gronnemark had? And does he think that his arrival has made the difference in the club’s transformation from nearly-men to title-clinchers? “It’s always hard to say if it’s seven percent, 15 percent, or 21 percent [of an improvement] but I can say that you can see on the page, and the statistical analysis, that Liverpool has really improved,” he says.
It’s clear that Gronnemark believes in his abilities and in the influence he is having on the team, but he is not relying on blind self-indulgence to give credence to his part in the awesome growth of the Reds. Rather, he is backing himself based on the unbiased numbers and data, which clearly tell the story of a trail-blazing mind who has become an important part of their artillery.
Another aspect he is totally confident about is that football’s delayed turn to pay attention to the effect of throw-ins is not simply a reactive move to find another quick win. For him, the clubs he is working with now – Liverpool, Ajax, FC Midtjylland and others – can see the long-term value in improving their throw-ins. “The only thing I can say is that people are calling throw-ins ‘marginal gains’ but I think that’s a really bad misconception because it’s not a marginal gain,” he explains.
“If you look at throw-ins, if you look at the situation just before the throw-in is given and then the following situation, the defending and attacking throw-ins are taking approximately 15 to 20 minutes of a match. In Liverpool, [before his arrival] for possession of throw-ins under pressure the club had 45.4 and were number 18 out of 20 in the Premier League, third last. Last season we went to an increase of 33 percent, and went from number 18 to number one in the Premier League.”
Clearly, Gronnemark’s presence on the training pitch is having a positive effect from a purely statistical point of view. The Danish supremo has really nailed down the best way to get Klopp, the players, and the rest of the staff to buy into his methods. Not only do they like his approach and his philosophy but they are putting it into practice in matches.
Improving possession retention and decreasing the risk of conceding goals from throw-ins deep in your own half is one thing, but for the fans, one of the most important results would be the number of goals that they are scoring from throw-ins.
As Gronnemark outlines, they are turning throw-in related possession into converted strikes. So, the team’s investment in this area is having an impact where it matters most. “This season, we also scored 13 goals from throw-in situations all around the pitch. And it’s not the long throw-ins towards the opponents’ goal because we’re not doing that at Liverpool,” says Gronnemark, before going on to define why they are not harnessing the power of this tactic.
“We could also easily score ten goals in Liverpool with the long throw-ins because Joe Gomez has a really world-class throw-in – we saw that in the match between England and Croatia a little more than a year ago. But, if you want to score ten goals from long throw-ins in the Premier League, you also have to take ten long throw-ins in every game, and do we want to see that at Anfield or on other pitches we’re playing at? No, because it’s not Liverpool’s style.”
Attuned to the idiosyncrasies of the team’s approach, Gronnemark has been able to adapt his own skillset and apply it to Liverpool. This is even more impressive considering that one of his biggest claims to fame before grabbing headlines as the best team in the world’s throw-in guru was that he held the Guinness world record for the longest throw-in.
Sure, he has a world-class group of players to coach, but like any good trainer, he knows how to mould and shape his own ideas to suit the abilities of those he is mentoring. Working one-on-one with all of the players has given him the chance to instruct each member of the squad on how to improve.
Unlike free-kicks or penalties, where some performers have an innately higher success rate of converting, creating chances and being a danger, Gronnemark believes that all players are coachable on throw-ins. Even if you aren’t naturally comfortable with this oft-forgotten aspect of the game, he is convinced that you can learn it and get to grips with the technique.
“For example, in Liverpool when I started in July 2018 Andy Robertson really got everything and improved to world-class with throw-ins after a short time, seeing the free space and knowing when to throw fast, when to have patience, and wait and everything.
“You can say that Trent Alexander-Arnold is also world-class with throw-ins but it took him half a year [to reach that stage]. So, he had a little bit of a slower development, but I think every player can improve their throw-in ability a lot, it just depends how you should coach them.”
His work with Midtjylland underlines Gronnemark’s willingness to modify his approach and play to the strengths of the clubs with whom he works. “Not this season but the last four seasons in Midtjylland in Denmark we scored 35 goals on long throw-ins. So, like eight, nine, ten goals a season,” he outlines.
Clearly, the short and long game is there for clubs to exploit through Gronnemark’s expertise, but it is obvious from listening to him that he is full of ideas and only starting out on his journey. With plans to publish a book in the future, he is eager to continue passing on his knowledge so that more and more clubs can benefit from a renewed interest in how to maximize the potential of throw-ins.
Already, the fascination with his services has gradually grown from year to year. What started with one club has since grown to a list of eight teams who are benefitting from his expertise. Things are certainly trending in the right direction, and the general consensus combined with the data is helping to turn the tide surrounding the conversation about throw-ins.
In fact, in the face of harsh judgment, Gronnemark remains steadfast that his knowledge base has enabled him to become more of an authority on the subject than anyone else, particularly pundits who spout hollow soundbites. “The criticism where people either have no knowledge at all about the subject, for example people like Steve Nicol and Andy Gray then I don’t really care about it,” he admits.
“For me, okay they are former players but they don’t really know anything about throw-in coaching at all. They are really taking the approach like they did 30 years ago. And then every time a pundit like Nicol and Gray is saying something negative about my throw-in coaching, it’s really great for me because it’s a big commercial when they are doing this. I didn’t feel the need to call them dinosaurs and so, but that’s what the fans call them.”
Like most groundbreakers, Thomas Gronnemark is finding out what works and what doesn’t on his own. He’s paying no attention to ignorance and is powering on with the task of mentoring the stars of today so that the talents of tomorrow can appreciate throw-ins for what they are: an important piece of the game that should be weaponised. Gradually, the dialogue is changing, and the Dane is playing a huge part in that.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90