As a Liverpool fan, one who married into supporting local Danish Superliga club FC Midtjylland, I had more than a passing curiosity when I heard that the Reds had taken on FCM’s throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark last summer.
I had watched last year, as FCM made an unlikely title charge fuelled in large part by long throw-ins. In fact, Ulvene (The Wolves) scored 10 times from their patented long throws, something a gegenpressing Jurgen Klopp Liverpool side seemed unlikely to do in any title challenge.
Of course, Klopp didn’t emulate the likes of FCM (or the Tony Pulis sides that haunted the mid and lower tables of recent Premier League seasons gone by), but for those of us who were paying attention, Liverpool’s throw-ins were improving this season.
With the Champions League final (and worse, the long, barren spell of no football and an out-of-control transfer rumor mill) on the horizon, I decided to take a punt and see if Gronnemark would fancy an interview.
To my surprise, he agreed, and quickly! So, on a Monday afternoon, I found myself skipping Danish classes and talking to one of Klopp’s speciality coaches at a cafe in northern Midtjylland.
What do you do when you’re a throw in coach, working with Danish Superliga champions FC Midtjylland, and Jurgen Klopp calls you while you’re on the road with your family? For Thomas Gronnemark, it’s not a hypothetical, it actually happened last summer. His answer: drive directly off the road and into a grass field.
“The phone rang and my wife said ‘It’s Jurgen!’ Then I just took the car and drove it directly into a grass field” Gronnemark said. “It wasn’t dangerous, you know. I went out of the car and took the most important phone call of my life. It was Jurgen Klopp, asking if I wanted to come meet in Melwood the week after.
“He had been reading an article in the German [publication] Bild, and he said, ‘we had a fantastic season last year, 4th place in the Premier League and Champions League final, but we were so bad at the throw-ins, losing almost every ball in. I tried to do something, but it didn’t work!’”
What was supposed to be one meeting led to Gronnemark coaching all 21 available players the next day—and about one week a month, every month, thereafter. And when he’s not at Melwood (or, as the case may be, Marbella or Evian), he’s hard at work, analyzing video of Liverpool’s throw-ins.
His charge from the boss was simple enough: help improve Liverpool’s throw-ins, and help the side retain possession of the ball.
“There are approximately 40-50 throw-ins per match, and several times we’ve had over 60 throw-ins. For example, against Everton it was 63 throw-ins,” Gronnemark explained.
“Most teams have possession under 50% of the circumstances when there’s a throw-in under pressure—where all the players are marked. If a player lost possession with over 50% of his passes, he wouldn’t be playing professional football. For Liverpool this season, we have possession between 75 and 100% of the occasions.”
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Mane’s opener against Manchester United came just four passes after a throw-in.
That is an impressive improvement, especially for a team that prides itself in maintaining control and possession. Although a great deal of ink has been spilled on Klopp’s focus on “marginal improvements,” the difference between retaining possession in 20/40 or 25/50 throw-ins, compared to 30/40 or 37/50 throw-ins, isn’t marginal at all.
“Just to give a good example of how we, in many matches—I want to say all matches—are beating our opponents with throw-ins: in the first Champions League match against Bayern Munich, they had possession in only 28% of the occasions when they had the throw-in under pressure.
“It’s because they have no real strategy. Because if they couldn’t throw it fast, then the fullback had the ball, pressure on the fullback, no movement, no strategy. And then of course the fullback is stressed and he’s just throwing it down the line. Some coaches say, ‘it’s better to lose the ball 30 meters down there’ but why not instead say, ‘why can’t we keep the ball?’ So that’s a big advantage for Liverpool.”
This is Bayern Munich Gronnemark is discussing. Bavarian Giants Bayern Munich. Five-time Champions League winners Bayern Munich. A Bayern Munich with a squad of world-class stars. And apparently a Bayern Munich who could use some help with their throw-ins.
Of course, all Liverpool fans know what happened in the next leg: Klopp & Co. went to the Allianz Arena and walked out deserved 3-1 winners on the night, handing those Bavarian Giants a rare Round of 16 Champions League exit.
There were a lot of small details that Gronnemark was unable to go into. However, he was able to elaborate on some of his overall work with the club. I asked him if most of his work with Liverpool was about the actual throw-in technique, or whether it was more tactical, for instance how the team moved to create space.
“It’s everything. If you look at it, it’s very complicated but of course it’s my job to make it less complicated for the players. So for example, I’m working with 30 different technical factors or parameters when I’m analyzing and training the long throw-in technique, but of course I’m not working with 30 different things with each player.
“Perhaps I’m working with 5 or 6. It’s the same with the movements, how to teach the team to move. The first couple of weeks I didn’t teach the team everything because then it’s too complicated.
Naturally, considering how often fullbacks take throw-ins, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s name came up several times throughout the conversations, as did Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez.
Since breaking into the side and claiming that rightback spot as his own, Alexander-Arnold has rarely shown his age or inexperience. However, in the 2017/18 season, if there ever was a time he looked lost on a pitch it was during throw-ins, when he often appeared hesitant and indecisive. That indecisiveness has largely disappeared from his game this season.
“Sometimes I focus on the long throws, but most of the time I focus on the tactical, how to move in certain ways. It’s important for the fullbacks to wait sometimes. I’ve seen a lot of people on social media say, ‘Why isn’t Trent throwing?’
“Perhaps last year it was because he didn’t know what to do, but now he’s either throwing fast, or he’s waiting for the right space to be created.”
If you follow Gronnemark on Twitter (which I’d recommend, with the fantastic handle @ThomasThrowin), you’ll see him often referencing mistakes that he sees while watching football. As someone who enjoys an occasional kick around, I wanted to know one way—one low-hanging fruit—that players of all levels could improve their throw-ins.
“A small. small thing is to train the ability to throw into feet,” Gronnemark said, stating the obvious (but apparently not obvious enough!) “Because that’s the basic, basic, basic thing. You can use some cones or small movement exercises, perhaps where your teammates are moving under a little bit of pressure, and try to throw it into the feet.
“It’s much easier to pass with your feet on the ground, but if that little thing isn’t handled, you’ll never be real good. If you’re throwing it to the hip, to the chest, to the head, it’s very hard to control. It’s one of my best secrets I can preview!”
Thomas Gronnemark was very generous with his time, and in Part 2, we talk more about his direct involvement with Liverpool, the Champions League final, and of course Jurgen Klopp.